Piriformis syndrome is a chronic condition arising from the piriformis muscle. This muscle causes pain locally in the buttock. However, given its closeness to the sciatic nerve, we think it also irritates the nerve. So, what is piriformis syndrome, and how can you treat it?
What is the piriformis muscle?
This muscle is located at the back of the hip joint. Its primary function is to rotate the hip to the outside (external rotation). But, importantly, the large sciatic nerve that supplies the lower leg leaves the buttock by passing under the muscle. So, we think part of the piriformis syndrome is related to nerve irritation as it passes under the piriformis muscle.
Although somewhat controversial, we think that tightness of the piriformis muscle can lead to problems. For example, some people have an anatomical variation where the muscle and nerve are close together or tethered. So, we suspect that the nerve can be irritated by the muscle in these people.
Symptoms of piriformis syndrome
Common symptoms of piriformis syndrome include:
- pain in the buttocks
- pins and needles and numbness in the lower leg
- tenderness on pressing of the muscle and reproduction of pain with pressure
Overall, it is essential to see a doctor to confirm the cause of buttock pain.
In general, there are many causes of buttock pain in sportspeople. Piriformis syndrome is a diagnosis of exclusion when other conditions are ruled out. Pathology that can mimic piriformis syndrome includes hip arthritis, nerve pinching from the lumbar spine, and hamstring tendonitis.
Often, we use an MRI scan to see the soft tissue in the buttock and rule out nerve pinching from the spine. Also, nerve studies may help confirm irritation of the sciatic nerve from the piriformis muscle.
Sometimes, we use an injection into the piriformis muscle to help with the diagnosis in complex cases. If we inject the muscle and the pain disappears, we can be confident that the pain is coming from the piriformis. In general, we do this injection with ultrasound to increase accuracy.
Piriformis vs sacroiliac joint pain
Often, it is difficult to know whether buttock pain is coming from the piriformis or the sacroiliac joint. This is because these two structures sit close together. Sometimes, both structures can cause buttock pain.
Generally, sacroiliac joint pain is tender at the joint – which is more to the centre than the piriformis muscle. Also, specific tests (such as Ober or posterior draw test) can bring on the pain. Frequently, MRI scans can point to degenerative changes in the sacroiliac joint such as swelling or spur formation.
Sometimes, we treat both structures if we think both are coming from both.
Treatment of piriformis syndrome
Generally, piriformis syndrome is a complex condition to treat. Therefore, it is essential to individualise treatment based on what works for each person.
Firstly, exercise therapy to strengthen the muscle behind the hip is essential. Secondly, stretching exercises to relieve muscle tightness can also be effective. Examples of Yoga stretching exercises include the pigeon, thread the needle, and butterfly. You must stop if you feel severe pain with these stretches. Thirdly, we use soft tissue therapy and acupuncture to reduce muscle tightness. Finally, a cortisone injection into the piriformis muscle can help with the treatment.
In rare cases, surgery to release the sciatic nerve from the piriformis muscle is done. However, surgery should only be considered when other simple treatments fail.
More about piriformis syndrome injections
Generally, a piriformis syndrome injection reduces pain from the piriformis muscle. Injecting the piriformis muscle helps to reduce pain and help with rehab. Usually, we inject a combination of local anesthetic and low-dose cortisone. Also, injections for piriformis syndrome should be done under ultrasound guidance to make them more accurate and effective.
Piriformis syndrome injections are done after the consultation and only take 15-20 minutes.
Final word form Sportdoctorlondon
Overall, we need to be cautious about diagnosing piriformis syndrome. This condition is a diagnosis of exclusion only. We recommend you see your doctor to rule out other causes. Finally, most treatments aim at improving stability around the hip and flexibility of the hip muscles.