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What are the best exercises to help ease sciatica?

Sciatica is the pain resulting from compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve runs from the rear of the pelvis down through the buttocks, down both legs and ends at the feet, and is the body’s longest nerve. The most common sciatic pain is felt in the legs and buttocks. While many people find the pain disappears after several weeks, for some, pain can last for a year or longer.

Symptoms of sciatica

If the sciatic nerve becomes inflamed or compressed, it can result in numbness, pain, a tingling sensation radiating from the lower back down through a leg, foot and toes, and it can also cause a weakness in the lower leg muscles. Pain can vary in intensity from mild to excruciating and can be amplified by coughing, sneezing or from long periods of time spent sitting.

While sufferers of sciatica can also experience general back pain, the primary pain associated with sciatica normally affects the legs and buttocks significantly more than the back. For the majority of cases, sciatica will pass in around four to six weeks without any need for treatment.

Causes of sciatica

The most common cause of sciatic nerve pain is a slipped disc. Other less common causes include a condition called spinal stenosis, where there is a narrowing of the spinal canal, and injury. Any pressure or damage to the sciatic nerve will result in irritation or compression, this causing pain.

Sciatica treatment

There are several things you can do to alleviate the pain, while suffering from sciatica. These involve a mix of over the counter painkillers, exercise, and using hot or cold compressions. More persistent cases may require further sciatica treatment such as physiotherapy, anti-inflammatory injections and prescription painkillers. In rare conditions, surgery may be advised to correct spinal problems.

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Preventing sciatica

Adopt as many good practices as possible, in order to prevent developing sciatica or to avoid it recurring. To minimise the risk of you experiencing a further episode of this debilitating problem, try improving your lifting techniques and adopting a better posture. Stretch properly before and after exercising and make sure you exercise regularly. Acquire a firm mattress to offer your spine decent support.

Sciatica exercises

While you may be given sciatica treatment exercises that are tailored to your specific needs, by a physiotherapist or other medical professional, there are several exercises that can be done regularly to help prevent sciatica from flaring up, and if it does flare up, to help alleviate pain. Movement aids the exchange of fluids and nutrients within the spinal discs, keeping them healthy and avoiding any force being exerted upon the sciatic nerve. Rotating and stretching the lower back and hips will benefit almost all cases of sciatica.

A programme of sciatica exercises will typically include:

A specific diagnosis: Exercises will be designed to address the underlying cause of a patient’s sciatica, such as spinal stenosis or lumbar herniated disc. The wrong exercises could exaggerate a problem, so gaining an accurate diagnosis before starting an exercise programme is crucial.

Strong core muscles: Many sciatica exercises are designed to strengthen back and abdominal muscles, creating a strong core that can fully support the back.

Stretching the muscles out: Stretching muscles surrounding the sciatic nerve is essential to a sciatic exercise regime. Combining gentle stretching and strengthening exercises helps a patient recover much more quickly from a flare up of sciatica and also makes them less likely to suffer future episodes of sciatic pain.

Hamstring stretching: Most patients with sciatica will greatly benefit from regular stretching of the hamstrings. If these muscles are overly tight, stress increases in the lower back and often aggravates sciatic pain or can even be the cause of it.

Exercising correctly: Doing exercises without proper form can either render them useless and ineffective or could even lead to prolonged or increased pain. If you are unsure of how to perform exercises, take guidance from appropriately trained medical personnel, such as a chiropractor, physiotherapist or physical therapist.

Aerobic conditioning: General body fitness is important for staving off sciatica. Brisk walking is a low impact aerobic exercise, ideal for those with a weakness in their lower backs.

6 Yoga Poses to Relieve Lower Back Pain

Some exercises to consider

The following exercises improve flexibility in the lower back and help to mobilise the sciatic nerve. Start gently and get used to the moves. Take the stretches very slowly and discover how far you can reach in each position while avoiding any pain. Aim to complete the exercises once a day, if manageable with the pain. Consider complementing the regime with cycling, walking or swimming. You are advised to seek professional medical advice before initiating these sciatica treatment exercises and to stop exercising immediately if you experience pain.

Knee hug stretch

Stretches the gluteal muscles in the buttocks, increasing lower back flexibility.

Position: Lie on your back and bend your knees, keeping your legs hip-width apart and feet straight on the floor.

Action: Raise one leg towards your chest with the knee bent and grasp it around the upper shin with both hands. Draw towards your chest gently, as far as the stretch will allow in comfort. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, increasing the stretch slightly as you feel the resistance release. Repeat three times, alternating each leg.

Advice: Relax the neck, shoulders and chest and breath deep steady breaths.

Hamstring stretch

Mobilises the hamstrings and sciatic nerve.

Position: Lie on your back and bend your knees, keeping your legs hip-width apart and feet straight on the floor.

Action: Raise one leg straight in the air and grasp hold of it around the hamstrings. Slowly bring your leg towards you, keeping the knee straight if possible. Hold for 30 seconds, gently increasing the stretch, if possible without feeling any pain. Repeat three times, alternating each leg.

Advice: Avoid pressing your lower back into the floor.

Gluteal stretch or reclining pigeon pose

This common yoga position lengthens and stretches the piriformis muscle.

Position: Lie on your back and bend your right leg so the foot is resting on the floor. Bend the left leg in the air and place the foot and ankle across the right thigh.

Action: Grasping your right thigh, gently pull it towards you feeling the stretch in your left gluteal muscles. Keep your lower back on the floor and hips straight. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat three times, alternating each leg.

Advice: Use a towel or scarf around your thigh if you are struggling to hold the stretch. Keep your pelvis in neutral position (straight) and tailbone on the floor.

Back extensions

Mobilises and stretches the spine in a backward motion.

Position: Lie on your stomach and prop yourself up on your forearms, pushing your chest up off the floor and keeping your spine and neck long.

Action: Use your hands and arms to push yourself up, arching your back and stretching your abdominal muscles. Hold for 10 seconds and breathe steadily. Return to floor and repeat 10 times.

Advice: Keep your head in line with your body (don’t look up), keep your hips on the floor and only extend as far as you comfortably can.

Cross body stretch

Helps to elongate tight gluteal and piriformis muscles.

Position: Lie on your back with legs straight and feet flexed up.

Action: Bend one knee towards your body and grasp it around the upper shin, pulling it slowly across your body towards the opposite shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds and release the leg back to the floor. Repeat three times, alternating each leg.

Advice: Keep your hips on the floor and only stretch as far as is comfortable.

Spinal rotation stretch

Creates space between spinal vertebrae, alleviating pressure from the sciatic nerve.

Position: Sit on the floor with legs extended out in front, toes pointing to the ceiling.

Action: Bend the left knee and place the foot on the floor outside the right knee. Place your right elbow onto the outside of your left knee and use it to gently rotate your body towards the left. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat three times, alternating each side.

Standing hamstring stretch

Lengthens and stretches the hamstring muscles in the back of the legs.

Position: Standing upright, raise one leg onto a stable raised platform such as a step, box or low table. Keep the raised leg straight, with toes to the ceiling.

Action: Maintain a straight back and lean forward towards your raised foot. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat three times, alternating each leg.

Advice: Avoid arching your back.

Approach each exercise with caution and proceed with great care. When it comes to relieving sciatic nerve pain, slowly and gently are the most effective ways to achieve positive results. If you experience any pain when exercising, stop immediately. Listen to your body and know its limits. For effective sciatica treatment, perform these sciatica exercises regularly, to restore function and ease pain.