If you aren’t comfortable with the word release to describe what’s occurring when an elbow is driven deep into your piriformis (pi-ri-FOR-mis) muscle, feel free to plug in any technique that causes a muscle to relax.
The rub: Any approach that by its nature isn’t capable of improving the communication between your brain and the muscle is going to end up leaving you with even less stability.
You’ve more than likely already experienced this; when instability is present, muscles will continue to tighten up again (and again…).
This doesn’t only apply to your piriformis muscle – this is all-encompassing.
This is where being infatuated with a particular technique is a problem.
To give you an idea of how widespread this is, when there’s no clear way of determining if the connection between your brain and the muscle has improved, the chances of the technique of choice increasing mobility without any improvement in stability is much higher.
Feeling little to no improvement when you go back for a second appointment is also a legitimate indicator that nothing has been done to improve your muscle’s ability to contract at the right time.
“It is not always easy to nail down what we mean by “good” and “bad”—and their definitions may remain perpetually open to revision—but such judgments seem to require, in every instance, that some difference register at the level of experience.”
— Sam Harris, Waking Up
Regardless of how you describe a muscle that feels tight; whether it’s pain or an injury, when a practitioner is fully capable of getting to the source – *expect* to feel a noticeable improvement after every session.
Even though your piriformis is only one player out of a close-knit tribe of muscles that work together, what this muscle brings to the field of play is unique.
Make that unique and indispensable. (emphasis added)
No matter how many muscles give it their best shot, no other muscle can play the role of your piriformis as well it can on its own.
Leverage is a major reason why all of those muscles can give it all they have and it’s still not going to be enough to get the job done.
To make up for what your piriformis is unable to contribute, without your conscious awareness – muscles will pull harder.
I’m willing to bet that on more than one occasion, you’ve referred to those muscles that continue to pull harder as being, tight.
As if a tight muscle is a bad thing. (answers coming)
[ Sidebar: As I write this, a former student sent me a message about a friend with restless leg syndrome. Having no relief for years, and feeling desperate, her friend had her piriformis muscle surgically released. And to this day, she’s still dealing with restless leg syndrome.
I’ve heard similar stories about people who have had their plantar fascia released.]
I’ve even heard of exploratory surgeries where people have had their piriformis muscle removed.
Before we get into why it doesn’t make a lot of sense to release a muscle that’s primary role is to pull its weight in any position, it’s helpful to know that your piriformis is one of six muscles that form a group.
Professionals refer to this relatively small muscle that’s shaped like a pear as being one of your deep six lateral rotators.
Lateral, meaning that in a few positions out of many, all six of these muscles are capable of rotating your thigh out.
Since your hip joint is a ball and socket, rotation is just one motion out of many that are available to you.
To say the same thing in a slightly different way, based on its structure alone, a ball and socket joint is going to allow for more mobility than any other joint.
Your piriformis muscle is also capable of rotating your thigh in the opposite direction.
There aren’t many muscles that are capable of pulling the same bone in opposite directions. Your piriformis is one of those rare muscles.
[ Sidebar: If you go to 12:40 in the YouTube video below, I show how your piriformis muscle produces motion in opposite directions. ]
Believe it or not, if you were to pick up an anatomy book right now, most of them will tell you that your piriformis muscle is capable of pulling your thigh in opposite directions.
So just to be clear, I’m not telling you anything that’s not being taught in college.
That being the case, going forward, you’ll want to know that there’s a significant gap.
It’s a knowledge gap.
See, the knowledge that’s being taught in the classroom doesn’t make it to the room where practical application is put into play.
To give you a sense of how widespread this gap is, at some point in every college program, a professor will say this to their class, “When you have more mobility at a joint, you’re going to have less stability.”
This is a consistent thread that can be found in every college program that includes anatomy as part of the curriculum.
But yet, what’s not being asked is whether or not your piriformis muscle is capable of playing its role in any direction or in any position that you find yourself in.
Which means that when an expert stretches your piriformis or digs deeper with an elbow, they have no idea whether that muscle is tight or weak.
Said another way, they don’t know whether your piriformis muscle is capable of providing stability or if it’s contributing to the instability that’s already there.
And let’s not forget about what’s occurring with the muscles that they have to go through in order to reach the depth of your piriformis muscle.
This is important. Because it’s instability that causes muscles to be tight in the first place.
It’s a vicious cycle. A vicious cycle that up until now, you haven’t been able to put into words.
If you think back to a time when you’ve felt a stretch in your piriformis muscle, you were most likely lying on your back with your thigh and leg flexed. Then, an expert rotated your thigh (read: a long lever) out. From there, with their hands at the end of both of those levers, they pushed your knee towards your opposite shoulder.
Besides stretching only addressing the symptom, what the experts aren’t aware of is that in the position that I just described, your thigh isn’t supposed to move independently of your pelvis.
In other words, if I was to address the muscles that are responsible for providing you with stability in that position, I could push your thigh even closer to your opposite shoulder and you wouldn’t feel any amount of stretch in your piriformis.
Since I didn’t do anything with your piriformis directly, what you just read is another way of saying that the tightness you feel in your piriformis muscle is the symptom.
Then there are people that have so much mobility that they’ve been labeled as being hypermobile; even though they have more mobility than what’s considered to be normal, an expert will continue to push their thigh so far in the same direction as their opposite shoulder that they never even feel a stretch.
And yet, the person that’s on the receiving end of all of this stretching continues to have that nagging itch.
In which case, regardless of the results, the experts continue to perform the same stretch.
So of course, the nagging itch continues to persist….
Whatever the case may be for you, this is the difference between continuing to scratch the same itch and getting to the source of that itch.
That nagging sensation that makes you want to do something is only there because the muscle that’s tight is doing its best to protect you from going into certain positions.
When push comes to shove, rolling around on a lacrosse ball on your own isn’t providing you with any better results than what an expert is capable of delivering with an elbow.
Nevertheless, I think you would agree that smashing the muscles with a lacrosse ball or even an elbow feels good at the time.
Then, within a matter of hours, you’re right back to scratch the same itch.
I realize how counterintuitive this is. That said, much like the expert that’s digging their elbow into your piriformis muscle, when you roll around on a lacrosse ball, you don’t know which muscles are actually playing their role from the ones that aren’t.
So even though scratching the same itch feels good for the short-term, over the long-term, both approaches are contributing to you having even more instability.
This, at a time when billions of dollars are being spent on back pain every year.
Ignoring the role that muscles play doesn’t make them any less important.
Since time is a constraint, and overhead is a reality, and the amount of college debt is at an all-time high, for all of these reasons, don’t look for the experts to make your muscles a priority any time soon.
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