Updated: Mar 29
When most people think of flossing, they immediately think of their teeth, and having the dentist scold them for not being diligent with their flossing routine! But the flossing I’m referring to in this blog pertains to another part of the body – our nerves! Yes, just like our teeth, our nerves at times need to be flossed. Also known as nerve gliding or neural glides, nerve flossing simply refers to the method used to ease neural tension in different areas of the human body.
Let’s talk a bit about our amazing nervous system first and then I’ll proceed about the benefits of nerve flossing to see if it’s the right technique for you.
OUR WONDEROUS NERVOUS SYSTEM
Our nervous system is a very unique and special system that allows us as humans to do everything possible during the day, including breathing and keeping our ticker ticking. The nervous system of the average adult extends over 37 miles with an innumerable measure of receptors that transmit and receive information, so our brain knows what's going on in our body. Fascinating, right? Did you also know that our nerves can stretch too? About 6% of its resting length!
Our nerves are covered by a sheath or covering that allows them to glide and move freely without getting hung up and causing pain. When we have some level of impingement such as in our spine with a herniated disc or arthritic changes, or even when we have some muscle tightness that closes down on the space our nerve runs through (e.g., carpal tunnel syndrome), we will have some level of symptoms. These can include numbness, tingling, burning, searing, and/or electrical-type feelings that can be either transient (come and go) or be continuous.
The ability of your nerves to glide as you go about your day is very important to ensure that you do not have any of the above symptoms limiting you from your activities. Gliding or flossing of your nerves is the action of your nerve moving through its covering without restriction where one end shortens and the other lengthens. Basically, the overall goal of nerve flossing is to decrease pain, improve range of motion and flexibility, and improve function and motion.
This is slightly different than stretching, which is the action of your nerve lengthening over both ends. In some instances where there is injury in the region such as a severe bruise or immobility or surgery, you can develop restrictions between the covering of the nerve and the nerve itself resulting in an early stretch or onset of symptoms of tingling or pain.
Another difference between stretching and nerve gliding: Patients and athletes commonly sustain a muscular stretch position for 30 seconds to one minute. Nerve glides, however, function best with a pulse as opposed to a static hold.
The nerves in our neck supply all the sensation and function from our arms all the way to the tips of our fingers. There are multiple points throughout that extend from our neck, shoulder, elbow, and hand that can result in compression at some point along the way. As I said earlier, compression, impingement, or irritation of the nerve can result from injury to the area, irritation, inflammation, or even scar tissue from surgery, resulting in reduced ability for your nerves to glide and move appropriately.
HOW DOES NERVE FLOSSING ACTUALLY WORK?
To address this, you want to first seek out your favorite and best physical therapist in your area to determine if this is what you are currently going through. From there, you can be guided in the best way to alleviate your pain and symptoms though nerve glossing. This technique, which can be used both in the clinic and at home, allows the person to move their nerves along its length by shortening the nerve on one end (tilting your head to the right) and lengthening it on the other (straightening your elbow).
By doing this, you will encourage the nerve to move appropriately while not allowing it to get "stuck". If, at any point, you feel like you get stuck or feel symptoms throughout the motion, you should stop and then repeat the motion in a shorter range until you have reduced symptoms. When your symptoms reduce, then you could go further into the range.
Once you can glide your nerves appropriately, then you can start working at improving their ability to tolerate stretch or length. As I mentioned above, our nerves stretch to about 6% of their resting length. You should be able to do so without any reproduction of pain or symptoms, such as burning or tingling. If you do experience something like this, there may be a restriction or there may have been a previous injury to the nerve making it hypersensitive to stretch.
You want to be able to regain this ability by gradually tensioning it to tolerance without symptoms, regaining length as you go. Again, when performing this type of technique, you want to have minimal to no symptoms. If you overdo any type of nerve flossing/gliding or stretching, you will aggravate the nerve and be in more pain than you were before.
IS NERVE FLOSSING RIGHT FOR ME?
You may be wondering if nerve flossing is something from which you can benefit from. I’ve seen many clients come through my door suffering from a host of ailments who have found great relief from practicing this technique. The most popular diagnoses that nerve flossing is known to help include:
The sciatic nerve travels from your low back, down your leg, and all the way to your toes. When people have issues with their sciatic nerve, symptoms like shooting pain down the leg, sharp pain in the buttocks, and a cringing back tightness when bending forward can all occur.
Occurs when the soft, jelly-like material that makes up the center of each disc in your spine leaks out and presses on a nearby nerve root. Symptoms of a herniated disc may include neck or back pain, as well as tingling, numbness, and/or weakness of one or both arms or legs, depending on where in the spine the affected disc is located.
Common cause of pain, pins, and needles and/or weakness in your arm, as well as neck pain and other symptoms. It is generally brought about when a spinal nerve root is compressed, either by an acute or chronic disc herniation or by degenerative changes in spinal structures.
Carpal tunnel syndrome
Caused by pressure on the median nerve. The carpal tunnel is a narrow passageway surrounded by bones and ligaments on the palm side of your hand. When the median nerve is compressed, the symptoms can include numbness, tingling and weakness in the hand and arm.
One of the most common causes of heel pain. It involves inflammation of a thick band of tissue that runs across the bottom of each foot and connects the heel bone to the toes. Plantar fasciitis commonly causes stabbing pain that usually occurs with your first steps in the morning.
Cubital tunnel syndrome
The second most common nerve compression syndrome (carpel tunnel being first), this affects the ulnar nerve of the upper extremity when the nerve is pinched as it passes behind the elbow. This is the same nerve that causes the tingling sensation of hitting your "funny bone."
Tarsal tunnel syndrome
Results when the posterior tibial nerve, found in the foot between bones and overlying fibrous tissue, is compressed. This condition is very similar to carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrist. Both conditions result when a nerve is pinched within a confined space.
As mentioned before, it is imperative you are working with a Doctor of Physical Therapy who can guide you through nerve flossing appropriately and gradually back you back to normal. As with any nerve injury, they can be difficult to get rid of especially if the patient has suffered with it for prolonged periods.
The longer the nerves have been compressed, the more likely the condition will be harder to get rid of. The moral of the story here is: if you are experiencing these symptoms, don’t wait another day; seek physical therapy treatment so that you can be evaluated and get on the road to recovery before the symptoms become more chronic.
If you are suffering from any nerve pains, or have specific questions about neck flossing, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out at 516-387-4669. I am always here to help. Also, if you have any specific topics that you would like us to cover, please feel free to use the links and number mentioned to let us know as well. We will soon be back at getting into webinars and seminars to provide higher level and more in-depth examination into different topics you have been wanting to learn. Lastly, don't forget to give us a follow on Facebook at Ascent Physical Therapy, PLLC and on our Instagram Page HERE .