Tight hamstrings can be identified by a professional when they have you lie down on your back and they passively elevate your leg up to the ceiling; marking the angle at which the knee begins to bend. It can also be identified by the tension you feel in the back of your thigh when trying to bend forward and touch your toes. How many times have you come across an article, or your doctor has said that your “tight hamstrings” are the cause of your pain?
Truth be told, the scientific research has shown that it is “impossible to conclude whether individuals with low back pain have impaired hamstring flexibility” due to the low quality of evidence out there. But what about sciatica? Unfortunately, there isn’t much research on this matter either. I do suspect that there can be some form of tension produced, but not enough tension present to say that the hamstrings need to be stretched to reduce the pain.
I want you to visualize the sciatic nerve. It exits the spine at levels L4, L5, S1, S2, and S3. The nerves come together and form the sciatica nerve as it passes through the glute and under/over/through the piriformis muscle and then runs down the back of the leg, crosses the knee, and down the back of the shin bone into the foot. It is the longest nerve in the human body. It supplies sensation to the back of the thigh and supplies motor control to the hamstrings.
Sciatica is irritation of the sciatic nerve, and can present itself as pain along the backside of the leg. An irritated nerve means that there is going to be inflammation, and increased sensitivity to the area. Sometimes stretching seems like a good idea to reduce the pressure off the nerve. However, the hamstring stretch is often performed in a static way such as pulling your knee up to your chest and then kicking the knee up towards the ceiling. The static stretch is held from 15 seconds to 30 seconds, even to a minute. This will truly improve the flexibility of the hamstrings (but as said before, it does not necessarily equate to relief). In fact, what also happens during this static stretch is that the blood vessels and nerves get elongated as well. As a result, the nerve gets starved of oxygen and blood which can lead to further irritation. This irritation can lead to more pins and needles, numbness, and pain.
But what if hamstring stretches feel good initially but then it’s painful afterwards? If your pain levels are really sensitive but you want to try working out the hamstrings, then something like a self hamstring massage can be helpful in this video. I usually recommend about 90s to 2 minutes of work. The key is creating change and reducing tension, but not increasing/reproducing pain.
If the pain is not as intense, and you are truly looking to improve flexibility, then moving in and out of tension can be a good solution. Something like in this video. The key is feeling the stretch and then releasing. It improves flexibility, blood flow, and may allow the muscles to move more smoothly. I usually recommend 90s to 2 minutes of work on this one as well.
(The videos I shared with you are from our Sciatica Protocol)
It is really easy to go overboard on stretching, which is why I’m a huge fan of massage and gentle movement instead.
How has this one worked for you?