Foam Rolling Sciatica

person touching lower back in pain

Most people don’t know what sciatica is until they feel lightning bolts shooting down their legs. And sciatica isn’t exactly rare: 2 out of 5 people will experience sciatica in their lifetime. And if you’re an athlete, you’re at an even higher risk of developing sciatica than others. 

And unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how strong, toned, or conditioned your body is – if you overwork those muscles regularly, you may exacerbate your condition. Sciatica can take up to four to six weeks to heal, which can feel like a lifetime of pain. But with the right foam rolling techniques, you can accelerate your recovery and manage your pain – we’ll show you exactly how! 

What is Sciatica?

Sciatica, also known as lumbar radiculopathy, is an umbrella term that refers to intense pain, numbness, or weakness along the path of the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in the human body – it starts in the lower back and runs down the back of your thighs, terminating at the back of your knee. 

Symptoms of Sciatica

When your sciatic nerve is compressed, irritated, or inflamed, you may feel symptoms like:

  • Weakness
  • Numbness
  • Intense burning or shooting pain from the buttocks to the legs
  • Instability
  • Low back pain
  • Difficulty bending foot inward or downward
  • Difficulty walking
  • Difficulty bending at the waist
  • Weak or absent reflexes

What Causes Sciatica?

Herniated Discs

Herniated discs are one of the most common causes of sciatica. A vertebral disc herniation, more commonly known as a “slipped disc,” occurs when the gel-like material between the vertebrae ruptures. When a disc ruptures, it can press against surrounding nerves, including the sciatic nerve. Slipped discs are an early sign of degenerative disc disease, and more common in older individuals. However, they can occur from improper lifting form, vehicular trauma, contact sports (football, rugby, etc.), and sudden twisting motions. 

Overuse muscle injuries

For athletes like runners and cyclists, sciatica pain usually occurs as a result of overworking the piriformis muscle. This small muscle is located directly under your glutes and is instrumental in hip mobility. When overworked, the muscle may spasm and seize up, compressing your sciatic nerve. This causes sciatica pain that mimics “true” sciatica caused by a slipped disc.

A strained quadratus lumborum (QL) muscle can cause similar issues. The QL muscle runs on both sides of your lower back, connecting your lumbar spine to your hips. It helps you maintain vertical posture and enables you to twist and bend laterally, and also assists in breathing. When this muscle is tight, or overused, it compresses the lumbar spine and decreases the range of motion in your back. In severe cases, the inflammation can compress the spine to a point where the local nerve roots are irritated, again simulating sciatica pain. This issue can also occur as a result of a tight iliotibial (IT) band.

For any competitive athlete, catching and rehabbing sciatica as early as possible is key to safeguarding your gains and progress. Ignoring your symptoms will only aggravate the damage and compromise your safety. But by promptly managing sciatica with foam rolling, physical therapy, and other rehabilitative measures, you can prevent further complications, speed up your recovery, and ensure a safe return to training.

How Can Foam Rolling Help Manage Sciatica Pain?

While physical therapy is still the treatment of choice for sciatica pain, foam rolling exercises make for a perfect addition to your recovery routine. Foam rolling uses a technique called self-myofascial release (SMR), also known as trigger point therapy, to reduce local inflammation and increase the production of anti-inflammatory proteins.

While applying targeted, sustained pressure on tender points along your muscles, the local receptors send signals to your spinal cord. In turn, the parasympathetic (PS) nervous system sends signals to the muscles to relax, reducing inflammation & tension and alleviating pressure on the sciatic nerve.

With the Rolflex deep tissue massager, you have full control over how deep or gentle your massage is. So when you foam roll your glutes, QL, and IT band, the pressure reduces muscle tension and increases blood flow. With more oxygen & nutrients flowing to the problem area (sciatic nerve), your body will be better equipped to fight the pain & begin the healing process. 

In a 2022 review, myofascial release of the piriformis muscle was found to significantly reduce muscle spasms and soreness, and provide sciatic pain relief. And when combined with active joint motion, the results are even more effective according to a 2018 study.

And if you stick with your foam rolling routine, it’ll help reduce the pain, restore your full range of motion (ROM), and get you back to training quickly & safely. 

foam rolling IT band

How to Foam Roll for Sciatica Relief

Precautions to Take Before Foam Rolling

First things first – get a confirmed sciatica diagnosis from a medical professional before foam rolling on your own. This will:

  • Ensure that sciatic nerve pain is indeed the source of your discomfort 
  • Confirm the cause of your sciatica
  • Give you peace of mind, knowing you can safely treat the condition

Your treatment regimen will vary based on what caused the injury. For example, a slipped disc is managed much differently than an overuse injury. If you foam roll your leg under the guise that your sciatica was caused by a slipped disc, when it was in fact caused by overuse, you may worsen your condition. 

A physical therapist can conduct a thorough assessment and order imaging to determine the root of your sciatica pain. This assessment will help them develop a treatment plan tailored to your needs.

3 Foam Rolling Techniques for Sciatica Pain

1. Piriformis Muscle

With a standard foam roller:

  • Start by sitting on the foam roller with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Place your hands on the floor behind you for support.
  • Tilt your body weight to the affected side and cross your affected ankle over the opposite knee.
  • Slowly roll back and forth, searching for tender points.
  • Roll the area for 15-30 seconds. 

With a Rolflex:

  • Either sitting or standing, grab the Rolflex handles and position it as high on your hamstring as possible, using the extension strap if necessary. 
  • Roll back & forth over your upper hamstring/lower glute for 15-30 seconds.
  • Hold the Rolflex in place, then bend your leg back & forth to flex the muscle – the roller will break up the muscle tension. Repeat this for 5-10 reps. 

2. Gluteal Muscles

With a standard foam roller:

  • Sit on the foam roller and lean into your affected side.
  • Keep your leg and arm on your affected side outstretched.
  • Bend your other leg at the knee and cross your arm over to the affected side. 
  • Start rolling slowly back and forth, searching for trigger points.
  • If you come across a trigger point, hold pressure on that spot for 30 seconds.
  • Adjust your position to roll your glutes from different angles. 

With the Rolflex:

  • Either sitting or standing, grab the Rolflex handles and position it over your glute, using the extension strap if necessary. 
  • Roll back & forth over your lower glute for 15-30 seconds.
  • Hold the Rolflex in place, then bend your leg back & forth to flex the muscle – the roller will break up the muscle tension. Repeat this for 5-10 reps.

3. IT band

With a standard foam roller:

  • Lay the foam roller on the ground horizontally.
  • Position your body sideways on top of the foam roller, it should sit perpendicular to your leg, resting between the knee & hip of your lower leg
  • Use your hands to support your body weight and cross your top leg over for extra balance
  • Slowly roll down the side of your leg towards your knee, pausing at any trigger points where you feel tension or discomfort.
  • Roll slowly back and forth over these areas for 15-30 seconds.

With a Rolflex:

  • Position the contoured roller over the outer part of your thigh
  • Roll up & down the outside of your leg, making sure not to roll past your knee (stop 2-3 inches above). Do this for 15-30 seconds. 
  • Identify any trigger points along the way
  • Hold the Rolflex in place over the trigger points, then curl & extend your leg to flex the muscle – the roller will break up the tension

Perform these foam rolling exercises 1-2x per day for up to 14 days or longer, depending on the severity of your symptoms. As a preventative and maintenance measure, continue rolling using these techniques even after your symptoms have resolved. 

What to Expect After Foam Rolling for Sciatica Pain

If you have a mild case, you can expect almost immediate relief. The targeted pressure and active joint motion can help loosen up muscles, boost blood flow, and improve sciatica pain. 

But if you’ve had sciatica for a while and your symptoms are bad enough to cause leg weakness, it could take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks of consistent rolling to feel good as new. It’s worth noting that you’ll experience mild pain & discomfort when foam rolling, which is normal. 

Choosing the Right Foam Roller for Sciatica


Foam rollers are often made of ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) foam or polypropylene (EPP) foam. EVA foam rollers strike a balance of softness and firmness. They're ideal for beginners or those with sensitive muscles. 

EPP foam rollers are denser and provide a deeper, more intense massage, especially compared to muscle rolling sticks. They’re suitable for athletes with dense muscle tissue or those with higher pain tolerance.


A full-size foam roller (36 inches) can cover larger surface areas and more muscle groups. So, if your pain goes from your lower back down to your hamstring, and calf, a long roller could come in handy. A shorter roller (18-24 inches) can target specific areas like the piriformis muscle. 

The Rolflex Pro is a small handheld foam roller. It offers more precise muscle targeting than the standard foam roller or a massage gun, allowing you to roll on problem areas at whatever angle & pressure you want.


High-density rollers are harder and provide a deeper, more intense massage. These are ideal for chronic sciatica and those who can handle deeper tissue massage. But if you’ve had symptoms for less than 2 weeks, and your muscles are still inflamed or sensitive, your best bet is a medium-density roller. Low-density rollers are softer, providing a gentler self-massage for acute sciatica pain relief.

The Rolflex comes with a medium-density (yellow) roller. The best part is you can switch it out for a high-density (green) roller or low-density (orange) roller, depending on your body’s needs. If you’re still unsure which foam roller to go for, a DPT can give you tailored advice based on the extent of your injury and fitness level.

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