The Piriformis muscle (piriformis; “pear shaped“) is a tiny muscle located deep in the buttocks, underneath the gluteal muscles. This little muscle is the most well-known of a group of muscles known as the “Hip Rotator Cuff” and is frequently the source of the pain in the butt and leg pain.
Piriformis Syndrome is a miserable condition in which the Piriformis Muscle becomes overly tight. Although there are almost always underlying biomechanical issues to deal with (valgus / varus knees, high / low arches, etc) this pathological tightness of the Piriformis is 0ften the result of FASCIAL ADHESIONS, TENDINOSIS, or a nasty COMBINATION OF BOTH.
Piriformis Syndrome can be aggravated by bending, lifting, sitting, sports, and even driving (foot on the gas pedal). Contrary to what your M.D. might tell you, there are no drugs or surgeries that are effective for treating Piriformis Syndrome. I will warn you, in 20 plus years of practice I have never one time seen a person whose Piriformis Release Surgery actually worked.
Piriformis Syndrome is an extremely common condition, and is far more likely to be found in women than men (about 6-15 times more often, depending on whose studies you are looking at). Although I can only speculate on the reason for this, I suspect that it is a child-bearing issue. It probably also has to do with the naturally wider shape of a woman’s pelvis. This is the most likely explanation for my finding it much more frequently in women than men —- even in women who have not had children.
As I stated earlier, Piriformis Syndrome is a major cause of sciatica (leg pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness, in any combination), hip pain, and buttock pain. Because sciatica is so often involved, Piriformis Syndrome is usually misdiagnosed as a slipped disc, herniated disc, or a chronic low back or sacroilliac problem (Hint: HERE is a simple test to help determine the difference).
The sciatic nerve is both the largest and longest nerve in the body, and at its largest point is about the thickness of one’s thumb. The SCIATIC NERVE originates in the low back (lumbar spine region) and angles toward the middle of the buttock. It then extends down through the leg, passing underneath the piriformis muscle. Be aware that in as much as half the population, the sciatic nerve travels through the Piriformis Muscle, passes over the Piriformis Muscle, or splits in two and passes directly around the Piriformis Muscle.
The symptoms of Piriformis Syndrome usually begin as a deep aching in what women like to refer to as their “hip” area. This pain will be found along an imaginary line that runs from the very tip top of the butt crack, to the greater trochanter of the hip bone (the bony knob on the upper and portion of the outer or lateral thigh).
A significant predisposing factor to chronic contracture and microscopic scarring of the piriformis muscle is wearing cruddy or improper footwear for your foot type (high-arched people wearing a “stability” or “dual-density” shoe). Other people predisposed to Piriformis Syndrome includes those with faulty spinal or lower limb mechanics, being overweight, having poor posture, spending too much time sitting, spending too much time on concrete, not partaking in enough physical activity (or occasionally too much exercise — over-training). And of course, the biggie — just being female.
Due to mechanical stresses causing chronic tightness / contracture, the Piriformis Muscle can actually become shortened over time. This often results in microscopic scarring of the fascial sheaths that tightly surround the muscle itself. Piriformis Syndrome is most commonly worse at rest (sitting or lying down) and is often (but not always) relieved temporarily, by moderate activity (particularly walking or stretching).
For years, I did not really understand why I had such good clinical results with so many cases of buttock / hip pain and sciatica, while other seemingly identical cases were largely unresponsive to chiropractic adjustments. Frequently these “problem” cases would get fantastic short-term results from their adjustment, but these results never seemed to last more than a few days at the most (and often no more than a few hours). It was not until I started doing “TISSUE REMODELING” in 2001, that I truly began to understand what was going on in many of these cases.
Over the past decade I have come to realize that Piriformis Syndrome is literally “epidemic” in the female portion of our society. Although I had no intention for it to happen this way, our Piriformis Syndrome Page is Destroy Chronic Pain’s #1 webpage by far. And despite all of the new research on the subject, the medical community remains largely mystified about what it really is, or how to treat it effectively. Again, drugs do not constitute “effective treatment” for most cases of Piriformis Syndrome (and surgery is such a crap-shoot….). Never assume that a “Piriformis Release Surgery” will solve your problems!
SCAR TISSUE AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO PIRIFORMIS SYNDROME
As you have read, scar tissue is normal, elastic tissue (think nicely combed hair here) that has been disrupted from its organized structure, into a balled-up and tangled wad of inflexible and hyper-sensitive, micro-gristle (think of a hair tangle that cannot be combed out — HERE). When it comes to Piriformis Syndrome, this kind of microscopic scar tissue is not typically in the muscle belly itself, but in the Fascia. Fascia is the thin, but very tough, yellowish white membranes that cover muscles. In my neck of the Ozarks, deer hunters call these membranes, “Striffin“.
Fascia is arguably the single most pain-sensitive tissue in the body! Fascial Adhesions will cause pain and dysfunction. Destroy Fascial Adhesions and you can oftentimes Destroy Chronic Pain!
Because most of these scar tissues are in the fascia as opposed to the muscle itself, they do not image on MRI (HERE). It is my opinion that microscopic scarring of the Piriformis Muscle is the single most common cause of chronic, long-standing, SACROILLIAC OR BUTTOCK PAIN (the Sacroilliac Joints are the bony bumps that lie just up and lateral to the top of the butt crack). It is also the most common cause of what I was calling a “butt-based” sciatica twenty years ago.
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