Sciatica can be a pain in the butt—literally. This common condition causes pain in the back and butt that may even radiate down the leg to the foot.
Acute and chronic sciatica pain can have a significant adverse effect on your quality of life and can make exercise and activities of daily living uncomfortable, if not downright impossible.
Although even the notion of exercise can be extremely unappealing if you have back pain, studies show that exercises for sciatica can actually help relieve sciatica pain and get your body on the road to recovery. Additionally, regularly performing back and core strengthening exercises and stretches may help prevent sciatica in the first place.
Keep reading to learn some easy sciatica exercises and stretches to help you get back to your fighting form.
What is sciatica?
Sciatica is a painful condition of the lower back, buttocks, and legs caused by compression on the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body. It originates from the spinal cord in the back and travels down the back of the butt and down each leg all the way to the foot.
Sciatica pain may occur anywhere along this path of the nerve or it may radiate throughout the entire course. In addition to pain, there may be numbness and tingling, and because the sciatic nerve contains motor information (information that controls movement), sciatica is also associated with difficulty moving the affected leg, or weakness in the leg.
Sciatica can be acute or chronic. In acute conditions, someone may injure the nerve by bending over to pick something up using improper movement mechanics and twisting their spine, whereas chronic sciatica can be caused by sitting for long periods of time with poor posture, among other faulty ergonomics.
How can strengthening exercises and stretching alleviate symptoms of sciatica?
Increasing strength in the muscles in the core, glutes, and back helps build resilience against the types of loads and compressive forces that can otherwise lead to sciatica.
Stretches for sciatica can help reduce pressure on the nerve root and release tension in the surrounding tissues that are contributing to the pain.
Oftentimes, the muscles through which the sciatic nerve travels will go into spasms if the sciatic nerve is irritated, so stretching can help relax the tissues to improve function and decrease pain and stiffness.
The best exercises and stretches for sciatica pain
Here are some of the best strengthening exercises for sciatica and stretches to relieve sciatica pain.
1: Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
The deadlift is a foundational exercise that strengthens the entire posterior chain (backside of your body), while stretching the hamstrings and glutes and lengthening the sciatic nerve.
Deadlifts are typically performed with a lot of weight to help build muscle, but this sciatica rehab exercise focuses more on restoring function and easing discomfort than hypertrophy.
- Stand upright holding a dumbbell or weighted household object in your right hand with your arms at your sides.
- Lift your right foot off the ground and keep a soft bend in your left knee while you hinge at the hips, folding your torso downward as you reach your right hand with the weight down towards your left foot. The right leg should extend straight backward as a counterbalance.
- Press through your left heel to stand back up, feeling your hamstrings (the backs of your thighs) and butt muscles engage.
- Complete 3 sets of 10-12 reps per leg.
Rockbacks are one of the best exercises for sciatica and dysfunction of the lower back because they build strength in the deep abdominal and low-back muscles while improving the mind-body connection with the core. Strengthening the deep core muscles and spinal stabilizers—and knowing how to activate them—helps protect the spine and the nerves.
- Kneel down so that you are in a tabletop position on your hands and knees.
- Press through your hands to sit your hips back toward your heels while keeping your back flat.
- Slowly rock backward and forward 10-12 times.
- Complete 3 sets.
3: Bird Dog
This core exercise lengthens the sciatic nerve and spine as you extend your leg and builds control instability in the deep core muscles like the transversus abdominis.
- Kneel on all floors in a tabletop position with a flat back. Use your core muscles to draw your belly in so that your belly button is reaching upwards toward your spine.
- Inhale, lifting your right hand and left knee off of the floor and touching them together under your trunk.
- Then, exhale, extending that same leg and arm such that the arm is straightened in front of you and the leg is straightened behind you.
- Move slowly and with control, performing 12 reps per side.
- Complete three sets.
4: Diagonal Chops
This is a good strengthening exercise for sciatica because it mobilizes the spine while strengthening the core.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and a soft bend in the knees. Hold a dumbbell or weighted household object with both hands, one at either side.
- Straighten your arms and reach up at a diagonal, rotating your trunk to that side.
- Chop your hands down across your body in a large, diagonal sweeping motion past your opposite hip.
- Chop up and down along this same diagonal 10-12 times and then switch to the opposite diagonal.
- Complete 3 sets per side.
5: Sciatic Nerve Glide
This sciatica stretch can help restore movement to the sciatic nerve if areas of inflammation have found it up along its course through the tissue in your legs.
- Lie on your back with the hip and knee of the painful leg flexed to 90 degrees, so that your kneecap is pointing to the ceiling and your shin is parallel to the floor.
- Grab onto this leg around the back of your thigh.
- Point your toes toward your nose and hold this position of the ankle throughout the stretch.
- Slowly straighten your knee until you feel a gentle stretch along the back of the leg, stopping if you feel pain.
6: Double Knee-to-Chest Stretch
This is a good stretch for sciatica because it helps increase the space around the nerve route, providing relief. However, if you have a herniated disc, do not perform this exercise as it might exacerbate your symptoms.
- Lie on your back. Bring both knees toward your chest and gently hug them.
- Hold for 30-60 seconds, then relax.
Working with a physical therapist can be the most effective way to develop a tailored rehab plan for sciatica pain, but tackling some of these sciatica stretches and exercises can help you get started on your healing journey.
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