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Tight Hamstrings or Sciatic Tension?

Woman Stretching

Commit to stretching regularly

Often clients comment to me that they have tight hamstrings and that it has been this way for the most part of their lives. “I have never been able to touch my toes” they often say, “even though I try to stretch my hamstrings.”

The simple fact of physiology is that muscles are reliable structures if they are stretched regularly; stretch them every day for a period of time and they will stretch. This doesn’t mean that what the client say is not true however, because there could be something else going on here.

The main nerves of the body, including the sciatic nerve, should move physically and be capable of a significant amount of stretching. During a lesson in my anatomy degree we had a spinal cord attached to the end of the table and we had to stretch it to reach the other end. This increased its length by 50% – really unbelievable.

Most people who say that they have always had tight hamstrings are those who report sciatic nerve symptoms. When I try to stretch their sciatic nerves (very similar to a hamstring stretch) they have very little motion of the sciatic nerve and report discomfort.

Whilst there are slight differences that allow chiropractors to determine if the tightness is in the sciatic nerve, a simple way to determine this at home is to commit to stretching regularly. If, after two weeks of stretching for 3 minutes everyday, you see no difference then let me know and I will show you how to modify it for the sciatic nerve.

Having a flexible and long sciatic nerve is important to long term lower back health. Flexibility helps when you are faced with challenges as it enables your lower back and nerves to become much more capable of adapting to a variety of injuries. Joints are also damaged over time by a lack of movement and keeping them flexible is impossible if the nerves are tight.

8 Join the Conversation

  1. Steve Siegert says
    Apr 16, 2015 at 8:56 PM

    Amazing how regular hamstring stretching can help lower back. Need to remain disciplined though, that's my challenge.

  2. Dr Jonathan Wilson (Doctor of Chiropractic) says
    Apr 16, 2015 at 9:41 PM

    This is especially true if you sit all day. Sitting shortens the length that the hamstrings have to travel and over time they contract. This is important because they attache to the base of the pelvis and if shortened pull the pelvis opening up the Sacroiliac (SI) joints which is a common source of pain in the back.

  3. Laura Griffin says
    Jan 15, 2019 at 6:13 PM

    Thank you for the helpful information. I've been having problems with my sciatic nerve in one leg, for months I was told it was my hamstrings. How do you modify the stretches for the sciatic nerve?

    • says
      Jan 22, 2019 at 10:02 AM

      Hi Laura, if stretching reproduces the sciatic symptoms then it is likely that something is limiting the movement of the sciatic nerve (or the nerve roots of L4, L5 or S1) as these neural structures exit the spine and sacrum. This is where we need to be careful. Unlike muscles, the full movement of the leg will force the sciatic nerve to stretch and move out of the spinal canal to provide the length required for the full leg motion. The sciatic nerve is not the same as muscle tissue which has filaments that move in and out of each other and therefore stretching it won’t increase its length in the same way that stretch muscles does. Instead the idea is to allow better movement of the neural tissues through the lumbar spine, sacrum and the soft tissues of the pelvic area. Here is the problem – what has caused the restriction or entrapment? Common candidates are; • Disc injuries • Boney growth • Ligament thickening • Scar tissue growth • Locking of the joints and vertebra of the lower back (including the sacroiliac joints) • Oedema (Tissue Swelling) • Inflammation of tissues • Nasty things – cancer, bone infection etc. (These are rare but they do happen). • Combination of the above Unlike tight hamstrings, tightness of the sciatic nerve will have an underlying cause that needs to be addressed. If it is not then stretching will be straining the nerve and nerve roots and in one case I know of a gentleman pushed and stretched so hard that he ruptured the neve root resulting in permanent nerve damage. Whilst this is unusual it can happen. With constant tight sciatic nerve we need to find the cause but in many cases we have been able to find great results for clients, so it is not all bad news.

  4. Fiona says
    Jan 29, 2020 at 4:10 AM

    Hi thanks for the advice! I am usually fit and well and used to go to Pilates etc but something happened to my back 9 weeks ago now and I have been to osteopath and had massage and now seeing the NHS physio who has given me stretches. I cannot physically get into a stretch position to stretch my hamstring without pain in my lower back?? If i sit upright I cannot have my 2 legs out straight in front of me unless knees remain bent Surely this is not right? I'm scared of nerve damage

    • says
      Jan 30, 2020 at 1:06 PM

      Hi Fiona, you may find it helpful to purchase a special device such as the PHYSIOWORX Adjustable Stretch Board | Calf & Hamstring Stretch Board | Plantar Fasciitis Slant Board that will help increase leg strength while improving the flexibility and elasticity of your muscles and whilst protecting your back. This is available on Amazon. If you need further help please do not hesitate to contact our office to arrange a consultation appointment.

  5. Sam Cole says
    Feb 19, 2020 at 1:03 AM

    I have been diagnosed with a schwannoma at the L3 vertebrae and wondered if this would cause hamstring pain ? It's right at the top of the hamstring at the base of the buttock.

    • says
      Feb 19, 2020 at 5:11 PM

      Hi Sam, the hamstrings are innervated from the L4, L5 and S1 so this is not an exact match neurologically speaking. You might however have a pelvic fault with the lower part of the pelvis (Ischial tuberosity) being pulled further from the knee. This can make the hamstrings pass over a great distance causing pain at the insertion (where you have described). I would certainly recommend seeing a chiropractor.

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