Sciatic nerve pain can be very painful, if you or a loved one is suffering, these sciatica stretches and exercises can help.
Sciatica can be a literal pain in the behind and may be a recurring issue for many sedentary patients. While over-the-counter pain medication and patience remain key to overcoming the pain under most circumstances, there are ways to speed up recovery, provide lasting relief, and prevent recurring pain through sciatica stretches and exercises and physical therapy.
If your symptoms include immobility/paralysis, loss of feeling or function in the limbs, fever, or loss of bowel or bladder control, seek immediate help.
What is Sciatica?
Sciatica is a term used to describe the symptoms of an impinged sciatic nerve, usually at the nerve roots in the lumbar region of the spine. Bone spurs and herniated (swollen or ruptured) discs are the two most common causes of sciatica in the lower back.
While the origin of the pain is the lumbar region, most pain symptoms involve the buttocks and thighs, with pain and other unusual sensations usually traveling down to the feet as well.
Sciatica can also be caused by an impingement of the sciatic nerve in the buttocks, underneath a muscle called the piriformis. This is also known as the piriformis syndrome.
Do Sciatica Stretches and Exercises Help at All?
Conservative treatment options help speed up the process considerably, by bringing down swelling or helping the body heal. Pain management is critical, as sciatica can come with episodes of serious pain.
As with most injury-related conditions, sciatica is often recurring. Certain stretches and exercise aren’t just helpful in relieving pain for patients, but they can also help strengthen the muscles that provide greater resilience against recurring injuries and pain.
Again, it’s always worth discussing these ideas with your doctor. While your doctor will likely recommend that you exercise and strengthen your musculature for general health and pain-free living, your specific issue might not be resolved through physical therapy alone. Bone spurs, for example, or chronically inflamed discs, can require minor surgery.
But even in such instances, training the muscles in your thighs, hips, and lower back can help improve your resilience against painful conditions, both before and after a surgical intervention. Here are some top recommendations for sciatica stretches and exercises that can produce stronger, healthier hips, and potential pain relief.
1. Glute Stretches
There are a number of different ways to get a deep stretch in the glutes and underlying muscles, including the piriformis. Let’s go over two different degrees of difficulty.
First, start by laying on your back on a mat, and bring one knee up to your chest. Use your hands to pull your knee across to the opposite shoulder and try to keep your hips square on the mat to emphasize the stretch. Pull your knee further down and across to get a deeper stretch.
Alternatively, you can try a pigeon pose. Start with your hands and knees on the mat, then slide one leg back while slowly bringing the other knee across. You can progress in this stretch until you become comfortable with this position.
2. Child Pose
We’ve addressed stretching out the hips and glutes, so let’s work on the lower back now. Stretching the lower back is less about relaxing your muscles, and more about creating space between your discs.
Note that depending on how your sciatica was caused, you may feel more relief performing a cobra pose (spinal extension) rather than the child pose (spinal flexion). Consider consulting your doctor on which option would provide more relief.
3. Anterior Pelvic Tilting
Lay down with your back on the mat, and tilt your hip forward so your lower back is flush with the floor. Hold this position for a few moments, then release. Repeat. This may help provide relief for your back and glutes.
4. Glute Bridges
Stretching can help relieve pain, but exercising your muscles can flush your system with endorphins, improve blood flow in the area you’re training, and help speed up recovery. If you live a primarily sedentary lifestyle, glute bridges can be an excellent tool to isolate your hip flexors, especially the muscles in your buttocks.
Start by laying with your back on the mat, your knees bent and feet close to your buttocks. Bring your hands out to the side, flex your core to tilt your hips upwards, and extend through your hips until your knees and shoulders are aligned through your legs and torso. Hold this position for a moment, and then bring your hips back down to the mat.
5. Banded Squats
Regular bodyweight squats are an excellent tool for lower body strength and stability. You need to engage and coordinate between different muscle groups to perform a good squat, breaking at the hips and knees, engaging with the legs to push yourself back out of the bottom position, and finishing the movement with your hips, all while keeping your back straight with your core.
If squats are no longer challenging, or if you would like to improve your form, pick up a light resistance band and wrap it around your knees (more than once, depending on the length of the band).
Proceed with the squat as normal, but emphasize pushing your knees outward this time, against the resistance from the bands. Take a slightly wider stance than normal, as long as it’s within a comfortable limit. Your exact stance will depend entirely on your hip structure and limb length – no two squats are quite the same.
6. Split Squat
Another way to train the stabilizing muscles throughout the thighs and hips, while simultaneously getting a deep stretch, is through a split squat. This is not to be confused with a Cossack squat. Split squats require an elevated surface – like a bench, stair, or a sturdy chair.
Begin by anchoring your back foot on the elevated surface, right on the ankle. Position yourself above the lead foot, and slowly descend into the bottom position. You should feel a major stretch through the thigh and hip on the back leg. If you are having trouble keeping balance, use a wall or bar to keep yourself upright.
7. Hip Hinges
The ultimate exercise for your posterior chain – from the hamstrings in the thigh to the erector muscles in your back – is a classic hip hinge. A hip hinge can be performed with or without resistance.
Begin in an upright standing position and initiate the movement by pushing your hips back. Keep your back straight and your spine “neutral” (neither flexed nor extended) and begin bending slightly in your knees until your hands are halfway down your shins. Reverse the movement, extending through the hip until you are standing straight again. Add resistance to the movement by holding a band or some light dumbbells in your hands.
You can step on the band, adding tension as you extend back upward into the standing position. This would allow you to reach the bottom position of the hip hinge without tension and achieve maximum tension near the “lock out” of the hips at the top, which may feel more comfortable if your back doesn’t support weighted hip hinges.
Stretching and Exercising for Sciatica Pain
It should be noted immediately that applying these exercises doesn’t constitute a panacea. While they all have the potential to provide short-term relief for patients with sciatica, they may not work as well for you as they might for someone else.
Certain factors, including mobility, flexibility, exercise history, and prior injuries all play a part in how effective these movements and stretches might be, as well as whether you should apply them in the first place. It’s always a good idea to discuss individual movements and exercises with your doctor or physical therapist before including them in your workout, especially if you’re dealing with sciatic pain.
Finally, pain relief is not a cure. While these sciatica stretches and exercises can help take pressure off the points where your sciatic nerve might be compressed and help prevent pain in the future by improving physical strength and resilience to injury, they serve primarily as pain management tools rather than treatments for lumbar radiculopathy (a pinched nerve in the lower back). You can’t stretch away a chronically herniated spinal disc, sadly.
If you or a loved one have been struggling with sciatic pain for a long time, be sure to speak with a pain management specialist about a tailored long-term sciatic pain management plan for you.