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Emerging information on the science of pain indicates that practicing certain stretches may help prevent and alleviate pain through a technique known as nerve flossing.
Preliminary research suggests that gentle movement of the nerves within the surrounding neural tissue is vital to managing pain and the general health of the nervous system. The understanding is that nerves should be able to gently slide, elongate, and angulate within neural tissues. This supports the ability of the nervous system to adapt to different loads, minimizing the kind of pressure on nerves that could alter sensations, worsen existing pain, or lead to new pain patterns.
What is nerve flossing?
Neural tissues rely on an important pressure gradient in the tissues around them to maintain adequate blood flow. Even small changes in tissue tension can lead to compression and, as a result, disruption of blood flow and nerve signaling to the brain, contributing to pain.
Neurodynamics is the study of nerve pathways as well as nerve movement through the surrounding tissues. It reveals that the ability to alternately place tension on different ends of the nerve to create movement can help keep the nerve adaptable and protected. This is known as nerve flossing or gliding. As you floss the nerve, you potentially ensure it moves more freely so that it can communicate more efficiently with the brain.
Consider the sciatic nerve, which runs through the back of your leg. In Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), if you bend your lifted knee and flex your foot, you’ll exert tension on the end of the nerve by your foot and slack at the end by your knee. This action draws the sciatic nerve and its branches toward your foot. Then, as you extend or straighten your knee and point your toes, you reverse the areas of tension and slack. This action draws the branches of the sciatic nerve toward your knee. When you put these movements together, you can encourage the sciatic nerve to move back and forth through its tissues more effortlessly.
This type of nerve movement may down-regulate local inflammatory responses, restore healthy blood flow to the nerve, and encourage more efficient communication between your brain and body, which is crucial to optimal functioning of the immune and nervous systems.
Nerve flossing stretches to help prevent and relieve pain
The key to nerve flossing is to engage in gentle movement within an easy range of motion. Since your target is the pain-free movement of your nerves, not your muscles and fascia, you want to experience very little sensation. It’s a great reminder that even in the physical body, there’s clearly more behind what we do than sensations or the feel-good endorphins associated with them. In addition to being a safe way to work with pain, nerve flossing is very accessible since it’s about simple, gentle movement.
As you explore the following stretches, select a nerve you want to focus on and find a range of motion that’s accessible, pain-free, and brings very little—if any—sensation. Start with 5-10 repetitions once or twice a day or, if you’re using these yoga moves preventatively, try rotating a few of them into your regular practice a couple of times a week.
Nerve flossing stretches for your sciatic nerve
The sciatic nerve is the largest and longest nerve in your body and stretches from your lower back to your feet. It’s also the most commonly irritated nerve. Addressing the health of this nerve prior to experiencing sciatic pain is a great place to start—and return to again and again. This stretch is a variation on Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose).
Lie on your back with your left leg extended on the mat and your right knee bent and drawn into your chest, your fingers interlaced behind your right thigh. Flex your right foot to draw your toes toward the ceiling and move your sciatic nerve toward the end of your foot.
Extend or straighten your right leg, keeping a bend in your knee if you need. Keep resting your palms on the back of your right leg. Point your toes toward the ceiling to move your sciatic nerve toward your spine. Remain within an easy, pain-free, and stretch-free range of motion. Bend your right knee and repeat 5-10 times. Switch sides.
Nerve flossing stretches for your spinal cord
Your spinal cord is essentially a tube containing your central nervous system that runs from your brain stem to your lower back. When you use opposite movements of your neck (cervical spine) and your upper, mid, and lower back (thoracic and lumbar spine), it creates a centralized flossing effect on your spinal cord. This may feel strange if you’re already familiar with Marjaryasana–Bitilasana (Cat-Cow Pose), but by changing up how you usually do it, you target the central nervous system.
Start on your hands and knees with your shoulders over your wrists and your hips above your knees. As you round your back and come into Cat Pose, instead of looking down, look straight ahead at the wall in front of you to take your neck into extension.
Then move into Cow Pose by arching your back and lowering your belly, but tuck your chin slightly to bring your neck into flexion. Don’t overdo it. Keep an easy range of motion so you don’t feel a stretch. Repeat 5-10 times.
Nerve flossing stretches for your femoral nerve
The femoral nerve runs along the front of your hips and thighs and is important for the health of your mid and lower back (second to fourth lumbar vertebrae). You want to practice this variation of Sphinx Pose without experiencing any strain.
Lower yourself to the mat and slide your elbows slightly in front of your shoulders to come into Sphinx Pose. Rest your palms on the mat. Lift your right leg off the ground as you inhale and look forward and slightly up.
Then lower your leg and exhale as you tuck your chin, finding an easy range of motion. Repeat 5-10 times. Switch sides.
Nerve flossing stretches for your femoral nerve & sciatic nerve
Get two nerves in one move with this variation on Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge Pose). The back-leg action targets the femoral nerve on the front of that hip while the front-leg action targets the sciatic nerve on the back of that leg.
Start in Low Lunge with your right knee bent over your right ankle and your left leg behind you with your toes untucked. Place your hands down on either side of your right foot and lean slightly forward with your hips. (If you need to lift the ground to meet you, come onto your fingertips or bring your hands on blocks or stacks of books.) Lift your head and look straight ahead.
Lift and lean your hips slightly back as you start to round your back, tuck your chin, and straighten your right leg (no need to straighten it completely). Repeat 5-10 times. Switch sides.
Preventative nerve flossing stretches for your sciatic nerve
This version of Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (Standing Splits) offers a more challenging and functional approach to stretching for anyone who is pain-free. It is only to be used when you are relying on nerve flossing as a preventative practice and not for relief from pain.
Start standing at the front of your mat in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and fall forward into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), bringing your chest toward your thighs. Bring a slight bend to both of your knees, look straight ahead, and touch your left knee to your right calf.
Straighten your legs and lift your left leg behind you as you tuck your chin, lift your right heel, and come onto the ball of your right foot. Find an easy range of motion. Lower your right heel to the mat and bend your knees. Repeat 5-10 times. Switch sides.
Nerve flossing stretches for your median nerve
The median nerve is the most commonly irritated nerve in your hands and arms. Pressure on this nerve is what causes the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. This gentle stretch—an adaptation of Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II)—can be helpful for relief from carpal tunnel syndrome as well as some other types of wrist pain.
Start in Warrior II on your right side. Turn your palms to face the long side of the mat. Bend your right wrist so the back of your right hand faces the wall behind you and your palm faces the front of the mat. Bend your left wrist to bring your fingers toward your palm. Gently lean your head toward your right shoulder.
Switch positions with your hands and head so that your right fingers reach toward your palm and your left fingers and palm face the back of your mat. Gently lean your head toward your left shoulder. Find an easy, pain-free range of motion throughout the stretch. Repeat 5-10 times. Switch sides so your left foot is forward.
This article has been updated. Originally published July 22, 2019.
About our contributor
Teacher Tiffany Cruikshank is the founder of Yoga Medicine, a community of teachers focused on fusing anatomy and Western medicine with traditional yoga. For more information, go to yogamedicine.com. Model Jenna Nishimura is the general manager of Yoga Medicine and a teacher of gentle, yin, and restorative yoga in Denver, Colorado.