How to Reduce Nerve Pain and Sciatica With Self-Massage

Kerrie Bodendorf had back pain ever since she could remember. At age 30, she also developed debilitating sciatic nerve pain during pregnancy. The pain that resonated down her leg would force her to sit and slide down stairs one step at a time. She even feared leaving the house because, at any point, she might not be able to walk. This led to severe anxiety, panic attacks and stress.

Bodendorf finally found relief from her pain not by focusing on her back, but instead, by massaging and rolling her feet.

In 2010, Bodendorf discovered MELT (myofascial energetic length technique), a gentle self-care practice that uses soft massage balls to lightly roll your feet in a specific sequence of movements. She practiced for 10 minutes, three to four times a week for three weeks. She found significant improvements in pain was able to walk pain-free again. She even was able to add exercise and movement to her routine, something that she didn’t believe would ever be possible.

“I remember going, ‘Wait a minute, where’s my pain?,'” Bodendorf says. “And I would try to get into the position where my body usually goes, ‘Yep, there it is.’ And I was like, ‘Where is my low-back pain? It’s been my companion for 25 years, where did it go?’ And that’s all I was doing, was ‘melting’ my feet.”

[READ: Tips for Managing Back Pain.]

How Nerve Pain Works

When Bodendorf stimulated and massaged the connective tissue in her feet, her nerves sent messages to her brain. In a complex feedback, those messages essentially “calmed her nerves.” There are approximately 250 million nerves in fascia, or connective tissue, which is why massage can be an effective vehicle to change the response of the nervous system.

Nerves are a composite of tissues that work together for communication, says Gil Hedley, who has been teaching integral anatomy via dissection labs, keynote events and lecture tours, including his international “Nerve Tour,” since 1995.

According to Hedley, nerves form a personalized tree-shape within our bodies and communicate through signals to and from the brain. The trunk of that “tree” is the brain and spinal cord, or central nervous system. It branches all the way out into the very edges of our bodies, and these branches are known as the peripheral nervous system. Nerves branch through to joints, skin and tissues such as muscles, where they provide integrity and strength as well as convey information and sensations — like pain — from the environment and the body.

Symptoms of nerve pain usually involve shooting pain from the back or glute that radiates down the legs, such as sciatica. You might experience numbness or tingling in your feet or fingers. This pain can be caused by compression, injury or by diseases like diabetes. While you can suffer long-standing damage to nerves, you can also heal from many types of nerve tissue injuries.

“Your nervous system and connective tissue system are linked and can’t be separated,” Bodendorf says. “If you can keep that connective tissue system in a healthy state, you can give the nerves a healthy ecosystem to thrive and heal. You cannot separate the nervous system and connective tissue system.”

[READ: What Is Vagus Nerve Stimulation?]

Finding Nerve Pain Relief With MELT

You can improve nerve pain by “rewiring” your nervous system and neural patterning with massage, according to Sue Hitzmann’s MELT method. Hitzmann is an exercise physiologist, manual therapist, former fitness instructor and New York Times bestselling author. (Her website offers streaming classes and other resources.)

“We use gentle compression or tensional techniques that cause fluid adaptations in fascia,” Hitzmann says. “Like a sponge, you compress it in an organized way. To make a sponge useful you squeeze out the old junk, so when you let it go, you get a fill effect in the cells of the tissues. And that’s very similar to how fascia reacts and responds.”

When you have stress in connective tissue, it can inhibit how nerve signals communicate — like a roadblock on a highway — reducing stability and causing pain, says Hitzmann. If your nervous system can’t take a direct route, it takes a detour down a side street. Over time, that roadblock causes dysfunction and pain in your joints. The goal is to rewire your neural pathways back to taking the highway, or most effective route.

This process is known as neuromuscular therapy. It is commonly used in massage therapy after you experience pain. You can apply the same technique for stability and performance. MELT focuses on massage on either the feet or hands, depending on where the pain is in the body. You should start with the foot treatment for pain you experience from the waist down, and the hand treatment for pain above the waist.

This process can take anywhere from 14 days to a month. Once you have cleared your pain, you can move to different protocols to maintain health, some of which require a soft roller and use treatments closer to the pelvis, shoulder girdle and spine. You should not feel pain when you practice these techniques.

[READ: 4 Simple Ways to Ease Tight Muscles.]

Self-Care Exercises to Improve Movement

Bodendorf used very gentle ball-rolling protocols on her feet and not directly on the site of pain, which is different from standard foam rolling.

“You wouldn’t put a roller right on the sciatic nerve, where you have pain, because you’re creating compression in an area that’s already compressed or dehydrated,” Bodendorf says. “Go above and below where we have our pain points and work that fluid exchange towards it instead of going right for it.”

Instead of using a hard object like a lacrosse ball or golf ball, Bodendorf used the hand and foot MELT exercises, which follow a specific sequence using a squishy ball and a light touch.

Here is the sequence:

Gliding: Gently massage your hands in two directions at the base of your palm between the pinkie pad and thumb pad. For the feet, the ball glides just before the heel, then over the heel.

Shearing: The ball pins to your skin and you drag the skin over the deeper tissue. You can also hold pressure and move a nearby joint which creates a fluid exchange.

Rinsing: For a foot treatment, you roll the ball or “rinse” from toe to heel, sending the fluid exchange up the center of your lower legs through the center of the foot. The fluid exchange continues all the way up into the pelvis, sacrum and spine. On the hand, you roll from your fingertips up to the elbow. It brings a fluid exchange from your hands up your arm to your neck and spine creating this charge that goes throughout your entire system. This process is similar to stirring hot water in a tub around the edges, and that flow affects the water in the middle.

Friction: Place the ball between your hands and rapidly move the hands in a random, scribble-like motion to stimulate bloodflow and fluid flow around all the nerves. For the feet, either stand, or for more control and a softer touch sit down and roll one foot at a time, moving your foot in a random, scribble-like motion against the ball on the floor.

It is crucial to only do four to six repetitions of the subtle movements. This is what Hitzmann calls the “get in and get out” theory of MELT. This calls for precise movements that stabilize the joint, and then you stop and let the body maintain the changes, and repeat the process the next day to give the system a “boost” again.

Why Rebalance Your Nervous System?

After rebalancing your nervous system, according to Hitzmann, you’ll experience benefits including:

— Better stability.

— More effective muscle recruitment.

— Healthier joints.

— More energy.

— Less pain.

— Reduced risk of injury.

— Improved performance.

Bodendorf treats her MELT routine like brushing her teeth, and it keeps her pain free. She is now able to do the things she loves like dancing and working out.

“MELT gave me my life back,” Bodendorf says. “It’s given me confidence and alleviated the panic attacks and anxiety. I can keep up with my kids and dogs. We hike all the time.”

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How to Reduce Nerve Pain and Sciatica With Self-Massage originally appeared on

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