Many riders suffer from lower back pain that spreads downward to their legs and sometimes even their feet. This sort of pain is frequently referred to as sciatica but it is sometimes caused by tightness in the periformis muscle.
The piriformis is actually a small muscle that is located behind the gluteus maximus, deep in the buttock. It connects our spine to the top of the thigh bone (femur) and is partially responsible for the lateral rotation of the hip. The piriformis is not only important for hip and leg movement but it also plays a major role in of our overall balance while upright. One end of the piriformis is attached to the front part of the sacrum, the triangular bone at the base of the spine. It’s the only pelvic muscle that attaches to the front of the sacrum, providing balance between the pelvis and legs. Its counteraction with the psoas muscle at the front of the pelvis and the gluteus maximus at the back maintains stability.
The sciatic nerve passes just underneath the periformis, so if the piriformis muscle becomes tight and/or constricted, it can irritates the sciatic nerve which can cause pain (either in the lower back or thigh), and even numbness and tingling along the back of the leg and into the foot.
An impeded piriformis can not only cause pain, but limit both mobility and balance. However it is all too easy for the periformis muscle to become damaged or tight, especially if you are riding a large, wide horse. To avoid damaging the muscle and to increase your hip flexibility the periformis can be targeted with specific exercises.
Here are a few simple exercises that can be used to target your hip flexors and your periformis. Make sure that you warm up your muscles before you stretch, otherwise you may do more harm than good. To warm up, you can simply walk around or march in place for a few minutes.
Supine Piriformis Stretch
A side stretch that opens up the lower back, relieving tension along the sciatic nerve. If you are experiencing sciatica, it’s important to stretch gently so that you don’t injure or inflame the area around the nerve.
- Lie on your back with your legs flat.
- Pull your left leg toward the chest, holding the knee with your left hand and grabbing your ankle with the right hand.
- Gently raise your knee towards your shoulder and cross the calf across your body towards the opposite shoulder.
- Hold for 20 seconds, and then slowly return to starting position. As you get used to the stretch you can increase the holding time to 60 seconds.
- Repeat with other leg.
Long Adductor (Groin) Stretch
- Sit on the floor and stretch your legs straight out, as far apart as you can.
- Tilt your upper body slightly forward at the hips and place your hands next to each other on the floor.
- Lean forward and drop your elbows to the floor (or as far down as you can). You will feel a stretch in the pelvis.
- Hold for 20 seconds, and release. Pause and repeat.
- Lay on your left side.
- Bend your knees and position them forward so that your feet are in line with your spine.
- Make sure your top hip is directly on top of the other and your back is straight.
- Keeping your ankles together, raise the top knee away from the bottom one. Do not move your back or tilt your pelvis while doing so, otherwise the movement is not coming from your hip.
- Slowly return the knee to the starting position. Repeat 15 times.
- Repeat on other side.
Hip Extension Exercise
- Position yourself on the floor on all fours with your shoulders directly over your hands. Shift your weight a little off the leg to be worked.
- Keeping the knee bent, raise the knee off the floor so that the sole of the foot moves towards the ceiling.
- Slowly lower the leg, almost back to the starting position and repeat 15 times initially and gradually build this up to 2 sets of 20.
- Sit on a chair and cross your right leg over your left knee, so that your right ankle is lying on your left thigh.
- Bend slightly forward, making sure to keep your back straight.
- Hold for 20 seconds (increasing to 60 seconds) and then repeat on the other side.