Piriformis Syndrome

March 2021 newsletter.

Text from “Running Doc’s Guide to Healthy Running”, from Dr. Lewis G. Maharam, MD.

Piriformis syndrome is – figuratively and literally – a pain in the butt, one that does an excellent imitation of the catchall ailment called sciatica.  This Pain can also show up in the lowermost portion of the back.  Therapy is possible but tricky.  Don’t try to diagnose and treat this one yourself.

Not long ago, for example, Paul, a 45-year-old patient of mine, came to me with what he described as a dull ache in the middle of one buttock.  It hurt him to run, and the pain was especially sharp as he was going up hills or even walking up stairs.  A string of doctors had pegged it as everything from a deteriorated spinal disc to that classic medical non sequitur, low back pain.  None apparently suspected the piriformis, one of the muscles deep in the rear of the pelvis that helps turn your leg outward and that runs alongside, and occasionally surrounds, the sciatica nerve.  Like any muscle, it can be overused and go into spasm, something that can also be triggered by tight hamstrings, prolonged sittings, or anything that twists the area.  When that happens – and especially when the sciatic nerve becomes involved – the pain is dulls, constant, and, it often seems, permanent.

Diagnosis is not difficult for anyone who has seen the condition before.  One or two simple exercises with the patient on a table can pinpoint it, and trained fingers can actually feel down to and sense the spasming muscle.  But diagnosis is only the start of treatment, and therapy is far from simple, news that is always a big disappointment to experienced athletes who are accustomed to being sent home with a list of simple stretching and strengthening exercises and a follow-up appointment. 

Paul, for example, listened to me for 20 minutes while I explained why he had to do exactly as I said.  Yes, there would be stretches, but they would have to be done […] the right way.  Other therapies, […] including a specialized technique called “transverse frictional massage”, in which the massage is applied opposite the alignment of the muscle and tendon fibers; ice; ultrasound. 

I heard from him nine months later when he called to tell me how disappointed he had been with my care.  Why?  Because he still hurt.  Of course, it turns out that once he knew what was wrong with him, he’d decided to skip all that therapy stuff, get some piriformis stretches out of a book and get to work on his own.

A condition that’s commonly not correctly diagnosed in the first place, that requires otherwise intelligent athletes to follow orders like robots, and that’s all but impervious to anything but the full galaxy of therapies is as close as one can come to a sports medicine physician’s nightmare.  But if you do what you’re told, it needn’t be our nightmare, too.