Nerve Flossing: What It Is and How to Do It

Learn more about nerve flossing and how nerve flossing exercises can help relieve nerve pain and improve mobility.

Published Date: May 16, 2024

Nerve Flossing: What It Is and How to Do It

Learn more about nerve flossing and how nerve flossing exercises can help relieve nerve pain and improve mobility.

Published Date: May 16, 2024

Nerve Flossing: What It Is and How to Do It

Learn more about nerve flossing and how nerve flossing exercises can help relieve nerve pain and improve mobility.

Published Date: May 16, 2024

Nerve Flossing: What It Is and How to Do It

Learn more about nerve flossing and how nerve flossing exercises can help relieve nerve pain and improve mobility.

Published Date: May 16, 2024
Table of Contents

We all (hopefully!) floss our teeth. But have you ever heard of flossing your nerves? Yep, it’s a thing, and if you have pain caused by irritated or compressed nerves (think: sciatica or carpal tunnel syndrome), nerve flossing — a type of movement that works tension out of nerves — is something you may want to try. 

“Flossing a nerve helps it glide more smoothly,” explains Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. As a result, nerve flossing can help relieve pain, increase range of motion, and improve nerve function. 

Read on to learn more about nerve flossing, including what it is and how to do it to relieve symptoms that keep you from living your best life.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT
Physical Therapy
Dr. Vinci is a Hinge Health physical therapist with a special interest in orthopedics, persistent pain, and mindfulness based stress reduction.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Maureen Lu, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Lu is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with over 17 years of clinical experience.

What Is Nerve Flossing?

An easy way to think of nerve flossing is to imagine a garden hose with a kink. That kink can make it hard for the hose to move freely and function properly, impeding water flow. The same is true for your nerves. When nerves get irritated or inflamed, “kinks” can form along the nerve’s path making it difficult to move your body, depending on what area is affected. It can make it harder to lean forward to read a text or trigger hand weakness that causes you to drop things. 

Nerve flossing, also referred to as nerve gliding or neural gliding, can help to work out those kinks, says Dr. Vinci. Nerve flossing involves performing a controlled glide that moves a nerve back and forth — much like when you floss your teeth — to help release any tension. 

“Once the nerve is pulled taut in a certain posture, you can move part of your body to release some tension along the nerve,” explains Dr. Vinci. Then you move (floss) it back and forth. “That repeated back and forth of tension, slack, tension, slack works on the mobility of the nerve so it’s able to expand as it needs to expand, and then retract as it needs to retract as you go about daily activities,” says Dr. Vinci. 

By helping to “mobilize” the nerve (that is, move it through the position in which it’s being irritated or compressed), it’s once again able to slide properly along its path. 

How Does Nerve Flossing Work?

“Nerves like to have a lot of space around them in order to slide and glide freely along their path,” explains Dr. Vinci. They also require blood flow — our nerves use almost 25% of the circulating oxygen in our bloodstream. “If there’s pressure on a nerve that restricts how well it can move or the circulation around it isn’t good, you may feel pain, numbness, tingling, or a burning sensation,” says Dr. Vinci.

Nerve flossing works by increasing circulation around compressed nerves, allowing them to move freely along the whole path of the nerve. “Sometimes a nerve can glide well in one section, but not well in another,” says Dr. Vinci. When done correctly, nerve flossing can reduce inflammation and tension in both muscles and nerves, leading to improved function and reduced pain. 

Results can happen quickly too. You may notice immediate improvement — less tingling and numbness in your fingers or more motion in your hips, for instance — after just a single set of nerve glides. This benefit, however, is usually temporary, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to hours. “It’s a good sign, though, that the nerve glides will be an important component of managing your symptoms,” says Dr. Vinci. For long-lasting benefits, she recommends that someone experiencing nerve symptoms stick with nerve glides as part of their exercise regimen for at least six weeks. 

Conditions That Nerve Flossing Helps

There are many conditions for which nerve flossing may be helpful, including:

  • Sciatica, which results in nerve pain in the lower back and legs that’s caused by irritation or injury to the sciatic nerve. 

  • Herniated disc, which occurs when the center of one (or more) of the flat, round discs — that are located between vertebrae in the spine and act as shock absorbers enabling the spine to be flexible — pushes against its outer ring. When a herniated disc puts pressure on the sciatic nerve it can also cause sciatica. 

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome, caused by the pinching of the median nerve as it passes through the narrow carpal tunnel in the wrist. The median nerve provides movement and strength to the forearm, wrist, and hand.

  • Cervical radiculopathy, caused by compression or irritation of any of the nerves of your cervical spine (neck).

  • Cubital tunnel syndrome, caused by the pinching of the ulnar nerve, one of the three main nerves in the arm, as it passes through the narrow cubital tunnel in the elbow.

  • Ulnar tunnel syndrome occurs when the ulnar nerve becomes compressed at the wrist; the compression usually occurs at the Guyon’s canal, which loops around the bones of the hand.

  • Muscle strain (aka a pulled muscle), which is a common injury caused by the overstretching of a muscle or tendon, often due to overactivity. 

  • Piriformis syndrome, caused by inflammation of the piriformis muscle, a flat narrow muscle in the buttocks that can irritate or compress the sciatic nerve. 

  • Tarsal tunnel syndrome, caused by the increased pressure on the tibial nerve, a branch of the sciatic nerve, as it passes through the narrow tarsal tunnel in the ankle.

Nerve flossing can also be important for post-surgical or post-injury rehabilitation. “Nerve flossing really comes into play around areas of scar tissue, which form adhesions that cause the layers of tissue — and the nerves that move along with them — not to glide as independently,” explains Dr. Vinci. “The nerves aren’t going to move as well because the tissue is restricted.”

Tips When Doing Nerve Flossing or Glides

You may already be doing some nerve flossing as you exercise and not even know it. Some exercises are specifically nerve glides (you can tell by their names), while others (like glute bridge and prone press up) can be performed with multiple repetitions and short holds to serve the same purpose.

Keep in mind that unlike traditional stretches, which are typically held for 30 to 60 seconds, nerve glides are not prolonged static stretches. Instead, they employ a dynamic back-and-forth movement. “Holding these positions can actually increase sensitivity and make your symptoms worse,” says Dr. Vinci. 

If you’re experiencing traditional nerve symptoms of, say, sciatica or carpal tunnel syndrome, Dr. Vinci recommends doing one to two sets of nerve gliding exercises (like the ones below), once or twice a day — or even more, if possible. Some nerve glides, which are done lying on your back, may be harder to work into your day, but Dr. Vinci recommends trying to do as many of the movements as you can while sitting in your car or at your desk to get a little bit of relief. “The nice thing is that nerve glides can be done quickly, 10 to 20 reps takes less than a minute, and you can integrate the upper body exercises while you’re at a stoplight or waiting for the bus or on the train,” she adds. 

When nerve flossing, remember to:

  • Keep breathing. Don’t hold your breath. 

  • Avoid stress and strain. “There shouldn’t be a lot of tension and the exercises shouldn’t feel strenuous,” says Dr. Vinci. “But you do want to walk up to that line, where you feel that sensitivity, that ache or tingling, and then back off again.”

  • Expect some post-exercise effects. “After nerve gliding, the area around the irritated nerve can feel more sensitive as blood flow and circulation increases,” says Dr. Vinci. “It’s similar to how you may feel after your foot falls asleep and you start to move.” It’s not expected to be that intense, but sometimes the symptoms can linger for a few hours. 

  • Adjust your head position. When doing nerve glides that target the upper body, changing the position of your head is a good way to adjust the intensity. For example, if you’re stretching a nerve in your arm, Dr. Vinci recommends moving your head away from the arm that’s stretching to increase tension and movement of the nerve. Move your head towards the stretching arm for less tension and movement of the nerve.

Upper Body Nerve Glide Exercises

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  • Median Nerve Glides
  • Ulnar Nerve Glides
  • Radial Nerve Glides

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These upper body nerve glide exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists are a great way to manage nerve pain in the hands and arms. They can be especially helpful if you’re dealing with carpal, ulnar, or cubital tunnel syndrome.

Lower Body Nerve Glide Exercises

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Lower Body Nerve Glides
  • Bridges
  • Prone Press Up

When it comes to nerve flossing for the lower body, two main nerves are targeted, especially in the case of lower back pain: the sciatic nerve and the femoral nerve. These nerve flossing exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists can help. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

PT Tip: Nerve Glides Can Benefit Almost Everyone 

While nerve glides are helpful if you have obvious nerve pain, they can also be beneficial if you’re experiencing muscle tightness or tension. “It may feel like your muscles are tight, but part of that sensation may actually stem from the need for more nerve movement, not just muscle length, which comes from stretching,” says Dr. Vinci, who notes that she commonly sees this with tight hamstrings. “People often say they have very tight hamstrings — that they feel this incredibly strong stretch at the back of the thighs when they bend over. But a lot of that sensation can actually be from nerve tension that creates a restriction in the hamstring muscles.” 

Try incorporating nerve flossing into your daily routine — for tight hamstrings, flossing the sciatic nerve (for instance, by doing a few sets of the lower body nerve glides) can lead to happier hamstrings. You should see results fairly quickly, Dr. Vinci adds: “We can more quickly improve nerve mobility than muscle length.”

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Kaneda, H., Takahira, N., Tsuda, K., Tozaki, K., Kudo, S., Takahashi, Y., Sasaki, S., & Kenmoku, T. (2020). Effects of Tissue Flossing and Dynamic Stretching on Hamstring Muscles Function. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 19(4), 681–689. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7675630/ 

  2. Jeong, U.-C., Kim, C.-Y., Park, Y.-H., Hwang-Bo, G., & Nam, C.-W. (2016). The effects of self-mobilization techniques for the sciatic nerves on physical functions and health of low back pain patients with lower limb radiating pain. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 28(1), 46–50. doi:10.1589/jpts.28.46

  3. Sears, B. (2023, October 16). Nerve Glides in Physical Therapy. Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/nerve-flossing-in-physical-therapy-4797516

  4. Heydenrych, L., & Jackson, K. (n.d.). Neurodynamic Treatment. Physiopedia. https://www.physio-pedia.com/Neurodynamic_Treatment

  5. Ultimate Guide To Nerve Flossing And How It Can Help You. (n.d.). Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.yorkvillesportsmed.com/blog/ultimate-guide-to-nerve-flossing-and-how-it-can-help-you