Sciatica occurs when a person experiences feelings of numbness or tingling, which begins in the lower back region, through the buttocks, and runs down the leg—the sciatic nerve.
Nerve pain resulting from sciatica is a symptom related to an underlying condition that affects the sciatic nerve. Conditions that can lead to sciatica are a lumbar herniated disc, degenerative disc disease, and spinal stenosis.
Fortunately, physical therapy and exercises can help relieve sciatic nerve pain and improve the condition by increasing strength through stretching and aerobic techniques.
Sciatic nerve pain stretches
Sciatic nerve pain stretches aim to target the muscles that lead to pain. These muscles are often tight and inflexible, so stretching can loosen the tightness and minimize pain.
Stretching the hamstring is best for dealing with sciatic nerve pain, as the sciatic nerve runs through the hamstring—this is the area behind the quadriceps, underneath your buttocks.
Here are some examples of sciatic nerve pain stretches:
Towel hamstring stretch
Lay on your back with a towel wrapped around your thigh. With your leg up in the air and your hands grasping the towel, begin to straighten the knee until a stretch is felt at the back of the thigh. Hold the position for 10 seconds and gradually begin to increase the duration of the hold.
Wall hamstring stretch
Once again, lay on the floor with your buttocks up against a wall. With one leg stretched out in front and the other up against the wall, push the knee straight until a stretch is felt.
Hamstring stretch while sitting
Sit at the edge of a chair and have one leg straight out in front of you with your heel on the floor, toes pointing upward. Sit up straight while pushing your navel towards your thigh without actually leaning over. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat three times for each leg.
Lay with your back flat on the floor, then raise your right leg up to a right angle and interlock your fingers behind the thigh. Raise you left leg, resting your right ankle on its knee, and press that knee towards your head to stretch the tiny piriformis muscle. Lower both legs then repeat on the opposite side.
Knee to opposite shoulder
Begin by lying flat on your back with your feet flexed upwards. Lift your right leg, then link your fingers around your knee and pull it gently across your body towards the opposite shoulder. Hold the position for 30 seconds before returning to the starting position and repeat the movement with your left leg.
Sitting spinal stretch
Start by sitting on the ground with your legs extended in front of you and your feet flexed upwards. Bend your right knee and cross your leg over the left, planting your right foot flat on the outside of your left knee. Turn your upper body and place your left elbow to the outside of your right knee, helping to keep your body turned towards the right. Hold this pose for 30 seconds, then return to the starting position and repeat on the left side.
Standing hamstring stretch
Place your right foot on an elevated surface either at or below hip level and flex your foot so that your toes and leg are straight. Bend forward towards your foot and reach for your toes – the further you bend the deeper the stretch. Hold this position for 30 seconds, then switch legs.
Reclining Cow’s Face Pose
Lay face-up on your back and cross your left leg over your right. Raise both legs off the floor, flexing both feet, and reach for your outer ankles to hug your legs towards your stomach. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch sides and repeat.
Begin in a regular lunge position with your right leg forward and your left knee on the ground. The top of your left foot should be flat on the ground. Lift your torso slowly and rest your hands on your right thigh, then lean your hips forward to stretch the left hip flexor. Hold this pose for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Sciatic Mobilizing Stretch
Begin by laying on your back with a small cushion beneath your head. Bend your knees with feet flat and hip-width apart. Your upper body should be relaxed with your chin tucked. Bend one knee upward toward your chest and hold up your leg with both hands while slowly stretching out your knee to make your leg straight up in the air. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds and slowly return back to start.
Lay on your front with forearms bent at elbows and neck straight. Push upward, raising your upper body but with your forearms still flat. Your back should be arched. Hold for five to 10 seconds and slowly come back down. Repeat a few times.
Foam Roll Hip Rotator
Sit on a foam roller with your knees bent and flat on the floor. Lean slightly back and place your right hand down to support you. Shift your weight to the right side of your body. Cross your right ankle over your left thigh. Using your hand and foot, which are placed on the floor, support yourself to gently roll back and forth at the bottom of your glutes. Do this for 30 to 60 seconds.
Exercising for sciatica nerve pain has been found to be more effective than simply staying in bed. Strengthening and low aerobic exercises should be your go-to, as they offer the most relief from sciatica nerve pain.
Strengthening exercises should work to strengthen the spinal column and the supporting muscles, tendons, and ligaments. This includes targeting the lower back, abdomen, glutes, and hip muscles.
Low aerobic exercises consist of walking, swimming, and pool therapies. They aim to increase fluid and nutrient exchange in order to promote a healthy environment for healing. Furthermore, low aerobic exercises work as a natural painkiller, as exercise has been shown to help alleviate pain by increasing endorphins in the body.
Speak to your physical therapist or trainer with regards to appropriate exercises to help strengthen your muscles in order to reduce sciatica nerve pain.
Sciatica Exercises to Avoid
While some exercises are safe to perform for your sciatica pain, others aren’t. Exercises to avoid include lower back exercises such as weight-bearing exercises that put added stress on your sciatica nerve, leg exercises like leg curls or leg lifts, high impact conditioning like sprinting, heavy stretching of the hamstrings, straight leg sit-ups, abdominal stretches, full body squats, heavy deadlifts, bent over rows, and weight liftings.
Unless advised by a professional, avoid these exercises in order to reduce further injury or pain of the sciatica. You may need to avoid these exercises for a few weeks, but your doctor or therapist will advise you when it is safe to start these types of exercises once again.
Other tips to relieve sciatica nerve pain
Along with stretches and exercises, there are other home remedies you can utilize in order to alleviate sciatica nerve pain.
Other tips to improve sciatica nerve pain include:
- Take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications
- Apply hot and cold packs
- Wear a supporting lower back brace
- Get proper sleep
- Try yoga
- Quit smoking – smokers have higher incidences of back pain
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Practice maintaining proper posture
- Ensure you lift and carry objects properly
If you are on a long driving trip or flight, ensure you take plenty of moments to move around as much as possible, i.e., make stops, get up from your seat
By practicing these tips as well, you can help improve sciatica nerve pain and prevent future injury.
Related: How to get rid of sciatica pain