Sports massage is well known for aiding and facilitating recovery from a number of conditions, but how does it fare with sciatica? In this article, we discuss the benefits of using massage therapy for nerve conditions such as sciatica, as well as detailing any risks, and factors that practitioners should consider when providing such treatment.
So, can a sports massage help sciatica? Sports massage cannot offer a complete resolution to sciatica, however it does offer a number of benefits which may make the condition more bearable. This includes pain relief, loosening muscles, improving circulation, improving quality of sleep, and improving overall wellbeing.
Read on to learn more about the use of sports massage for nerve conditions such as sciatica.
Can a Sports Massage Relieve Sciatica?
Whilst experts agree that sports massage cannot completely cure sciatica, there are numerous studies and expert testimonies(1, 2, 3) that suggest that massage therapy has the potential to significantly reduce pain in areas such as the lower back and hip, loosen and relax muscles, improve circulation, increase sleep quality, reduced reliance on drugs, and an increased sense of wellbeing.
Types of Massage Therapy for Sciatica
There are a number of different types of massage which may be beneficial for sciatica(2), including:
- Sports massage
- Deep tissue massage
- Swedish massage
- Neuromuscular massage
- Myofascial release
Each massage therapy uses different techniques, therefore provides different benefits, however each of these benefits have the potential to relieve sciatica in one way or another. For example;
Sports and deep tissue massages, whilst different therapies, both use deep finger pressure to relieve muscular and soft tissue tension. A study from 2014(4) found that a 30-minute session, several times a week, is effective in relieving lower back pain, including sciatica. Similarly, neuromuscular massage combines the deep pressure of sports massage with friction to release contracted muscles, relieving tension and reducing pain(2).
Meanwhile, Swedish massage uses flowing, kneading movements which can help to improve circulation and stimulate nerve endings. Myofascial release, on the other hand, can be used as trigger point therapy to target stiff muscles which may arise as a result of sciatica(2).
What is Sciatica?
Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve, which runs along the length of the lower back to the feet, is irritated, trapped, or compressed(5). Typically, sciatica only affects one side of the body, however, pain and other symptoms of sciatica can last from 4-6 weeks. Although, in some cases, it can last longer, and can reoccur.
Most commonly, sciatica occurs as a result of a herniated disk compressing the nerve, causing irritation, pain, and numbness in the affected leg(6).
Signs & Symptoms of Sciatica
Signs(5) that a client may have sciatica include their bottom, back of their leg, or their feet and toes experiencing:
- Pain, stabbing, shooting, or burning sensations
- Tingling (akin to pins and needles)
- Back pain
Can a Sports Massage Make Sciatica Worse?
There are experiential accounts of massage therapists accidentally making sciatica worse as a result of not understanding the condition(7). As such, massage therapists must have a full medical understanding of what sciatica is, as well as understanding best practice for sciatica before agreeing to treat an individual with the condition.
There are three key things(7) to consider to avoid making sciatica worse:
Since sciatica can present in different areas of the spine, there is no one-position-suits-all, however, it is important to determine the best table position for clients suffering with sciatica before proceeding with treatment. Things to consider(7) for this include:
- Don’t position clients face down - some believe this to be the worst position as it can aggravate the condition
- Pick a side - ask clients how they sleep. This is likely to be the best position
Don’t Do Too Much
To avoid making sciatica worse, experts(7) advise avoiding deep pressure in the sciatica area, and not using aggressive massage techniques, as the risk of making the condition worse greatly outweighs the benefits. Such techniques may be used further into the journey once the client is out of acute pain.
Likewise, it’s important to ensure that the client doesn’t do too much post-massage. It is typical to make post-massage recommendations to maximise results, however, in cases of sciatica, it is advisable to make more conservative recommendations, as there is potential for clients to do more harm than good. Carefully select gentle stretches and self massage tools with a low likelihood of making their condition worse.
Identify Perpetuating Factors
Perpetuating factors are things that the client does in their day to day life that aggravates or prolongs a condition. As a massage therapist treating sciatica, it is important to identify such factors so that appropriate treatment can be given(7). This helps to ensure that the therapist doesn’t accidentally make the condition worse out of a lack of information, but may also make the treatment more effective.
What’s more, once factors have been identified, the therapist can also make simple suggestions to the client which may make their day-to-day life better.
Examples of perpetuating factors(7) include:
- Previous injuries
- Changes to routines, e.g spending more time in front of the computer, or a change to their commute
- A new bed
- New exercise routines
- New hobbies
- Other treatments, such as physiotherapy or chiropractic
- Medical treatments - doctors can make mistakes also
Benefits of Sports Massage for Sciatica
- Loosen and relax muscles - loosening the muscles around the sciatic area can help to relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve
- Improve circulation - Improved circulation delivers essential oxygen and nutrients to help facilitate healing
- Release endorphins - massage is shown to stimulate the release of endorphins, helping to relieve pain
- Reduce stress - Massage is also shown to reduce the levels of cortisol in the body (the hormone that causes stress)
- Reduce reliance on painkillers - by reducing pain, massage may reduce clients’ reliance on painkillers for sciatica
- Improve sleep quality - reducing pain and discomfort may help to improve the amount of and quality of sleep a client receives
- Improve general wellbeing - improvement of all/some the above will help to improve overall wellbeing
Whilst massage therapy cannot offer a complete resolution for sciatica, various studies and expert testimonies have found that massage can be beneficial in reducing pain, discomfort, and tension, alongside offering a number of other benefits. However, it is important to fully understand the condition before providing treatment - there are some risks associated with massage for sciatica which could make the condition worse.
That being said, properly trained massage therapists should have the necessary knowledge, skills, and intuition to safely navigate sciatica. If you’re interested in offering sports massage as part of your practice, Breeze Academy offers a range of sports massage courses which can take you from being a complete beginner to competent sports massage practitioner. Choose between Level 3, Level 4, or a combined Level 3 and Level 4 course to kickstart your career in sports massage.
Take a look online today, or get in touch for more information.