What is Nerve Flossing?

It may seem strange to use the term “flossing” when referring to physical therapy treatments for nerve pain. However, after describing how some of the nerves in the human body have a distant likeness to dental floss, it becomes easier to understand why a physical therapist may refer to some of their prescribed exercises and other treatments as “nerve flossing”. In this post, we will discuss the similarities between dental flossing and nerve flossing and how “flossing” our nerves can help improve nerve function and relieve pain.

Dental Floss and Nerves

Most people are aware that dental floss consists of a long, thin string passed between adjacent teeth in order to remove bacteria and other debris. Of course, the nerves radiating from our spine do not remove bacteria or other debris in the body, but they do resemble long, thin strings. They are also designed with flexible properties that allow them in normal circumstances, to move freely when a person engages in activity. In some patients, nerves can become hindered due to swelling in nearby tissues, along with a host of other reasons including fractures, infection, diabetes, tumors, and repetitive strain.

Symptoms Associated with Nerve Issues

When a person’s nerves are not able to move as they need to, they may experience a host of symptoms. People experiencing a pinched nerve sometimes referred to as radiculopathy, will often experience symptoms such as pain, numbness, tingling, or burning in the affected area. Many people have heard of the painful condition called “sciatica”, where a person will experience these symptoms radiating down from the buttock area of one of their legs, perhaps even all the way down to the knee. Other common areas where nerves become impinged include the wrist (carpal tunnel), the elbow, and the shoulder.

Upper Body Nerve Issues

One of the areas where physical therapists may employ nerve flossing techniques is throughout the cervical/arm(s) region that deals with three major nerves, the ulnar nerve, the radial nerve, and the median nerve. The median nerve branches off near the shoulder from an area known as the brachial plexus (collarbone area), which contains fibers from the nerve roots of the cervical (neck) region. The nerve travels down through the arm, eventually making its way down to innervate some of the hand. The ulnar nerve also is part of the brachial plexus system, traveling down the shoulder, prominent at the elbow, then traveling down to innervate the pinkie finger and part of the 4th digit of each hand. The radial nerve is also attached to the brachial plexus system, eventually making its way down the underside of each arm, and completing its path when it reaches the hand.

Similar to when a person cannot move dental floss between their teeth when it becomes trapped, any of these nerves, the ulnar, the median, and the radial, can become pinched from injury, swelling, overuse, etc. Common problem areas for impingement or entrapment include the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder area, the neck, and less commonly, the brachial plexus region.

How Does Flossing Help?

Nerve flossing treatments and exercises are designed to gradually increase the free-flowing movement of nerves that have become impinged. Nerve flossing can help improve both the sensory and motor functions nerve signals that pass between the brain and throughout the affected area. As the nerve(s) are able to function properly again, pain levels decrease, as well as other symptoms such as numbness, tingling, and burning.


If you are having issues with symptoms such as pain, numbness, and tingling, it’s very important to receive treatment. Radiculitis can lead to muscle weakness throughout the affected area(s) and perhaps even permanent nerve death. Please contact Cawley Physical Therapy and Rehab at 570-208-2787 or email us at: cawleyptfrank@gmail.com for more information.

Article Written by Dr. Heather Marsico DPT