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What Science Tells Us About Preventing Nerve Pain With Yoga

Your yoga practice can be a therapeutic tool for managing and preventing some types of nerve pain. Yoga Medicine founder Tiffany Cruikshank explains how.

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With all of the new and emerging information on pain science, anyone who practices yoga—students as well as teachers—has an opportunity to apply modern research to the way you stretch so you can help alleviate and prevent pain. Preliminary research suggests that gentle movement of your nerves is vital to both managing pain and supporting the general health of your nervous system, and yoga for nerve pain is . The idea is that healthy nerves should be able to gently slide, elongate, and angulate within neural tissues in order to adapt to different loads and minimize pressure that can worsen existing pain, alter sensation, or lead to new pain patterns.

Sometimes, tone and tension around neural tissues can be a problem. These tissues rely on an important pressure gradient around them to maintain adequate blood flow. So even small changes in tissue tension around a nerve can be enough to block nerve mobility and lead to compression that disrupts blood flow and nerve signaling back to the brain, contributing to pain.

See also: Low Back Pain 101: 3 Sequences to Ease Your Pain

What is neurodynamics?

To help you keep your nerves adaptable and protected, it’s necessary to have an understanding of neurodynamics (the study of nerve movement through its surrounding tissues) and nerve pathways. We have the ability to alternately put tension on different ends of the nerve to create a movement of the nerve through the tissues, often referred to as nerve gliding or flossing. As you floss the nerve, you potentially allow it to move more freely so that it can communicate more efficiently with your brain.

For example, the sciatic nerve runs through the back of your leg, so in Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) if you bend your knee (raised leg) and flex your foot, you’ll put tension on one end of the nerve (by your foot) and slack the other end (by your knee). This action draws the sciatic nerve and its branches toward your foot. Then, as you extend your knee and point your toes, you’ll 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 also may down-regulate local inflammatory responses, restore healthy blood flow to the hard-working nerve, and encourage more efficient communication between your brain and body. Optimal signaling is crucial if you want your immune and nervous systems to function at their best, which is another reason to add nerve gliding to your repertoire.

The key to nerve gliding is to move gently within an easy range of motion. Since your target is the pain-free movement of your nerves, not of 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 to what we do than just sensations or the feel-good endorphins associated with them. Another thing I love about this approach is that, in addition to being a safe way to work with pain, it’s very accessible since it’s about simple, gentle movements.

See also: Reduce Pain and Discomfort with These Poses for the Pelvis

Yoga poses to relieve nerve pain

Select a nerve you want to focus on and, as you do the stretch, find a range of motion that’s accessible, pain-free, and brings very little (if any) stretching sensation. Start with 5–10 repetitions once or twice a day. If you’re using these yoga moves more preventatively, try rotating a few of them into your regular practice a couple of times a week.

Stretches for your sciatic nerve

The sciatic nerve stretches from your lower back to your feet and is the largest and longest nerve in your body. It’s also the most commonly irritated nerve. Addressing this prior to experiencing sciatic nerve pain is a great place to start—and return to again and again. This is a variation on Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose).

Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Photo: Cary Jobe

1. Lie on your back with your left leg on the mat and your right knee bent and drawn into your chest, your fingers interlaced behind your right thigh. Flex your right foot, drawing your toes toward the ceiling to move your sciatic nerve toward the end of your foot.

Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Photo: Cary Jobe

2. Extend or straighten your right leg, but there’s no need to straighten it completely. Keep resting your palms on the back of your right leg. Point your foot toward the ceiling to move your sciatic nerve toward your spine. Be sure to stay with an easy, pain-free, and stretch-free range of motion. Bend your right knee and repeat 5–10 times. Switch sides.

See also: 5 Sciatica Stretches to Relieve That Burning Pain

Stretches for your spinal cord

Your spinal cord is a tube that essentially contains your central nervous system. It extends 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 more centralized flossing effect on your spinal cord. This may feel strange if you’re already familiar with MarjaryasanaBitilasana (Cat-Cow Pose), but changing up how you usually do it targets the central nervous system.

Marjaryasana–Bitilasana (Cat-Cow Pose, variation)
Photo: Cary Jobe

1. Start on hands and knees. As you round your back and come into Cat Pose, instead of looking down, look ahead at the wall in front of you to take your neck into extension.

Marjaryasana–Bitilasana (Cat-Cow Pose, variation)
Cary Jobe

2. Move into Cow Pose by arching your back and lowering your belly except tuck your chin slightly to bring your neck into flexion. Don’t overdo it. Keep an easy range of motion without feeling a stretch. Repeat 5–10 times.

See also: Poses for Your Back

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) and the front of your hips. Make certain you remain without any strain as you go through this variation of Sphinx Pose.

Sphinx pose, variation
Photo: Cary Jobe

1. Come into Sphinx Pose by lowering yourself to your mat and sliding your elbows slightly in front of your shoulders. Rest your palms on the mat. Simply lift your right leg off the ground as you inhale and look forward and slightly up.

Sphinx pose, variation
Cary Jobe

2. Then lower your leg and exhale as you tuck your chin. Find an easy range of motion. Repeat 5–10 times. Switch sides.

See also: Poses for Your Hips

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 your hip while the front-leg action targets the sciatic nerve on the back of your leg.

Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)
Cary Jobe

1. 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. (You may need to come onto your fingertips or bring your hands on blocks or a stack of books.) Lift your head to look straight ahead.

Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)
Cary Jobe

2. 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.

See also: Poses for Your Legs

Preventative stretches for your sciatic nerve

This version of Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (Standing Splits) offers a more challenging and functional approach for those who are 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.

Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (Standing Splits, variation )
Cary Jobe

1. Start standing at the front of your mat in Tadasana and fall forward into Uttanasana (Foward Bend), bringing your chest to your thigh. Bend both of your knees slightly, look forward, and tap your left knee to your right calf.

Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (Standing Splits, variation )
Cary Jobe

2. 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 and bend your knees. Repeat 5–10 times. Switch sides.

See also: Poses for Your Hip Flexors

Stretches for your median nerve

The median nerve is the most commonly irritated nerve in your hands and arms. Pressure on the median 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 that condition as well as some other types of wrist pain.

Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II, variation)Cary Jobe

1. Start in Warrior II on your right side. Turn your palms to face toward the long edge of the mat. Reach the back of your right hand toward the wall behind you so your palm starts to face the front of the mat. Bend your wrist to bring your left fingers toward your palm. Gently lean your head toward your right shoulder.

Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II, variation)
Cary Jobe

2. Switch positions with your hands and head so that your right fingers are reaching toward your palm and your left fingers and palm start to 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.

See also: Yoga for Wrist Injuries

About the author

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.


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