Dr. Harris MBBS, RMP
Sciatica is a very common cause of lower backache that usually affects people, like office or factory workers, truck drivers, laborers, etc, who do jobs that involve prolonged sitting or adapting physically arduous positions. However, reports say that anybody can develop sciatica, and there is no apparent gender preponderance.
You will be surprised to know that there is a 10% to 40% chance that you will suffer from sciatic pain at some point in your life (1). It is a very debilitating condition that often occurs as a persistent nuisance which not only compels people to get medical assistance but also take prolonged sick leaves from work (2).
In recent times, many companies have sprouted that have claimed that their massage guns can relieve the pain of sciatica. Despite the rising popularity of massage guns, people are not sure whether these devices are effective for alleviating such pain. Some even doubt that massage guns can make sciatica worse. So, what’s true? Let’s find out.
But before discussing the effectiveness of massage guns for relieving sciatica pain, let’s understand what sciatica is, what causes it, and what the pain feels like.
What is Sciatica?
The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in our body that arises from the last vertebrae of our spine and travels through the buttock and back of the thigh down up to the knee level, where it divides into two and enters the leg.
When the sciatic nerve gets pinched due to any cause like some bony overgrowth, herniated disc, tensed muscles (piriformis syndrome), tumor, or even during pregnancy, it leads to pain of mild to severe intensity that travels from the lower back to the rear of your thigh and leg along the nerve pathway. This condition is termed sciatica.
How Do You Know The Pain You Have Is Sciatica?
Sciatica nerve pain usually radiates into one leg along the course of the nerve and worsens with sneezing, coughing, stooping, or sitting for a prolonged time. The pain may be accompanied by weakness and numbness in the leg. The character and severity of leg pain, however, vary.
It may feel like a mild ache or tingling sensation, but it can also present as a sharp cutting, burning, stabbing, shooting, or electrical shock-like pain which makes it difficult to perform even simple daily chores.
If you’re unsure that the back or leg pain you’re experiencing is due to your sciatic nerve, you can consult with your primary care physician or your physical or massage therapist before taking any steps to relieve the pain with a massage gun, deep tissue massage, or even physical therapy.
Is Turning to a Massage Gun for Sciatica Nerve Pain Effective? What Does Research Say?
The approach usually taken for curing sciatica and pain relief involves giving painkillers and treating the underlying cause either through medications or surgery. But is it possible to get the same therapeutic effects using a massage gun for sciatica? Well! There is some reality to that.
Massage and physiotherapy have been used for treating different kinds of pain since ancient times. Research says that these are also beneficial for people suffering from sciatica. According to a study conducted in the USA in 2008, massage therapy decreases sciatica nerve pain and increases the range of motion in sciatica patients, and helps in the healing process (3).
Similarly, in a study conducted in 2016 among sciatica patients waiting for their spine surgery, researchers found that most of the participants felt the massage therapy was valuable before their surgery (4).
Recent research published in the Indian Journal of Physiotherapy & Occupational Therapy in 2020 concluded that deep friction or deep tissue massage significantly reduces lower back pain caused by piriformis syndrome (one of the common etiologies of sciatica). Patients felt a marked improvement in their range of motion and pain symptoms (5).
Similarly, shreds of evidence are there that massage not only has analgesic effects but also boosts the secretion of serotonin and dopamine levels while decreasing stress hormone production in the body (6, 7). This creates a sense of relaxation and makes sciatic nerve pain more manageable.
Although all these studies support the beneficial use of massage therapy for relieving sciatica pain, very limited research is available that has specifically trialed the effectiveness of percussive massage therapy using massage guns. However, anecdotal evidence from users and chiropractors justifies the use of a massage gun for sciatica after medical consultation.
How Does A Massage Gun Help With Sciatica?
Massage guns work on the principle of percussive or vibrational massage therapy. These small, handheld devices deliver rapid, repetitive strikes to specific areas of the body. They provide a host of health and pain relief benefits, which may offer some insight as to whether or not you should choose a massage gun for sciatica.
Let’s discuss the following benefits that can help in relieving sciatic nerve pain.
Relaxes Tensed Connective Tissues
Many a time, sciatic nerve pain arises when the nerve gets compressed by the swollen or inflamed connective tissues, including muscles and their surrounding fascia, as occurs in piriformis syndrome. If massage guns are used with proper technique, the deep vibrations generated by the device relax these tensed muscles and release all the trigger points taking off the pressure from the sciatic nerve. The patient feels significant improvement with pain, tingling, and numbness.
Imparts Analgesic Effects
At the specific frequency with which massage guns deliver repetitive strikes on the tissues, the pressure sensations override the conductance of pain signals toward the brain. In simple words, the vibrations divert your attention from the pain, thus creating an analgesic effect.
Moreover, the repetitive strokes of percussive massage therapy dilate the blood vessels in the targeted areas. This improves blood circulation, which clears off the inflammatory cells and related substances and helps in the healing and recovery of inflamed tissues. This ultimately releases the pressure from the sciatic nerve.
Sense Of Relaxation
As discussed earlier, massage therapy decreases the production of cortisol (primary stress hormone) and boosts the secretion of endorphins which create a sense of relaxation and well-being. It helps you better deal with the disease and can offer some sciatica pain relief.
Despite the above-mentioned studies, there is very limited research available so far in which massage guns have been specifically tested on sciatica patients to check for their effectiveness.
Besides, massage guns cannot be used for treating sciatica caused by conditions like tumors, bony overgrowths, spinal stenosis, etc, where surgical interventions are required.
Moreover, a particular technique needs to be followed while using massage guns. These percussive devices have semi-hard heads, and if the vibrating head is placed, for instance, over the inflamed piriformis muscle or too close to the bone, the pain will worsen. Therefore, you should consult with an expert before using such devices.
Bottom Line: Can You Use a Massage Gun for Sciatica Nerve Pain?
Massage guns can be useful for relieving sciatica pain as it relaxes tense and inflamed connective tissues, compress the sciatic nerve, improves blood circulation, and creates a sense of relaxation and pain relief.
However, there is very limited research available in this regard, so don’t jump right into a deep tissue massage (with or without a massage gun) without speaking to your primary care physician first. You should always consult your doctor before using such devices for treating sciatica.
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Konstantinou K, Dunn KM. Sciatica: review of epidemiological studies and prevalence estimates. Spine. 2008 Oct 15;33(22):2464-72.
Bell J. Massage therapy helps to increase range of motion, decrease pain and assist in healing a client with low back pain and sciatica symptoms. Journal of bodywork and movement therapies. 2008 Jul 1;12(3):281-9.
Boote J, Newsome R, Reddington M, Cole A, Dimairo M. Physiotherapy for patients with sciatica awaiting lumbar micro‐discectomy surgery: A nested, qualitative study of patients’ views and experiences. Physiotherapy Research International. 2017 Jul;22(3):e1665.
Kutty NN, Siddeeque S, Tamphaibema H, Othayoth N, Bineesh CP. Effect of Muscle Energy Technique with Deep Friction Massage on Pain, Disability and Internal Rotation Range of Motion of Hip Joint in Individuals with Piriformis Syndrome. Indian Journal of Physiotherapy & Occupational Therapy. 2020 Jan 1;14(1).
Law LA, Evans S, Knudtson J, Nus S, Scholl K, Sluka KA. Massage reduces pain perception and hyperalgesia in experimental muscle pain: a randomized, controlled trial. The Journal of Pain. 2008 Aug 1;9(8):714-21.
Field T, Hernandez-Reif M, Diego M, Schanberg S, Kuhn C. Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. International Journal of neuroscience. 2005 Jan 1;115(10):1397-413.