Sciatica can be a pain in the butt—literally. This is the common name for lumbar radiculopathy, a condition involving compression of the sciatic nerve, which travels from the lower back to the hips and back of the legs. According to physical therapist and orthopedic clinical specialist Libby Bergman, DPT, OCS, compression of this nerve can cause pain that is either localized anywhere along the course or that spreads throughout. This condition can make daily movement uncomfortable, to say the least. Fortunately, there are some simple stretches for sciatica that you can do at home to relieve symptoms.
“Sciatica is often caused by disc herniation and age-related changes in the lumbar spine, also known as the lower back,” explains Dr. Bergman. “Typical symptoms occur in a predictable pattern in the lower body. These may include changes in sensation or numbness, pain, and even in severe cases loss of strength in the legs.”
While many people who experience lower leg pain that automatically radiates down the leg assume it’s sciatica, Dr. Bergman says sciatica isn’t the only condition that can lead to these symptoms. “Therefore, a complete physical examination by a physical therapist is crucial to get the most accurate diagnosis and treatment plan,” he advises.
Who is prone to sciatica?
Although Dr. Bergman says that sciatica can affect people at any age, “in general, younger people are at higher risk for sciatica due to disc herniation, while older people are more at risk due to arthritic changes,” he explains.
Overall, men as well as anyone with a high body mass index, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, who smoke or who are under a lot of stress have a higher risk of sciatica, Dr. Bergman adds. Additional risk factors for sciatica include genetics/family history and having an occupation that requires repetitive or heavy lifting, twisting, or sitting for long periods of time, he said.
How stretching can help relieve sciatica symptoms
In most cases, treatment for sciatica is multifaceted, and depends on your specific symptoms, history, and cause. Stretching is often an adjunctive component of treatment for many people, as is strength training. It’s a good idea to work with a physical therapist — at least initially — to ensure you’re properly diagnosed and have a personalized treatment program that addresses what’s causing the sciatic nerve irritation.
“Typically, the goal of stretching is to relieve pressure on the nerve root and relax the surrounding tissues that contribute to pain due to spasms and constriction of blood flow,” says Dr. Bergman. “However, stretching too aggressively or too early during the condition can aggravate sensitive neural tissue.”
5 stretches for sciatica
1. Figure 4 enlarged
This stretch relieves sciatica because the nerve passes through the center of the piriformis, a muscle in your hip that sits above the hip joint, says Dr. Bergman. “This muscle often goes into a holding state as a knot or spasm in the presence of nerve inflammation,” she explains. “Regular, non-painful stretching can help relieve muscle pressure on the sciatic nerve, especially in the later stages of recovery.” She says to perform this stretch on both sides — even on the non-painful side — if you have time.
How: Lie on your back with both knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Cross the heel of the painful leg over the thigh of the opposite leg, just above the knee. Gently press the inside of the high knee until you feel a stretch in the front or side or back of your hip. Alternatively, try pulling the high knee toward the opposite shoulder from this position without pushing down. Dr. Bergman says that depending on which muscles are specifically involved, one position may feel better than the other, and you can try both and choose the one that feels best. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat several times a day.
According to Dr. Bergman, this gentle stretch activates the spine and can reduce sciatica pain. “Motion lotion! Gently moving the spine into a ‘weightless’ position will help relax any tight muscles,” he notes. “By doing so, it will encourage better circulation to the affected area to reduce inflammation and promote healing. Overall, this will help you feel more confident about your ability to move back pain-free.”
How: Get down on your hands and knees with knees under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Inhale as you move into the “cat” position by gently rounding your back toward the ceiling, thinking about bringing your nose to your belt buckle. Hold for a few seconds, then exhale as you move into a “cow” position, lowering your belly toward the floor, arching your back, and looking forward. Dr. Bergman says to think about pressing your pelvis forward or tucking your hips in as you do this. Repeat 10 to 15 times through a pain-free range several times a day.
3. Sciatic nerve glide
Dr. Bergman says that in some cases of sciatica, local inflammation of the nerve can create an area of constriction that exacerbates symptoms, especially when symptoms begin to subside. “This exercise is intended to help the nerve regain its ability to glide through the surrounding tissue, like flossing through your teeth,” he says, noting that this exercise works best in the later stages of recovery and when it causes pain. Expanded is not given
How: Lie on your back with the hip of the painful leg bent 90 degrees, so that the roof of your knee points to the ceiling and the shin is parallel to the floor. Hold this leg behind your thigh. Flex your legs and maintain this ankle position throughout the exercise. Slowly straighten your knees until you feel an easy stretch in the back of the leg. If your symptoms are severe or cause pain, do not push into or through the pain. Repeat 10 to 15 times through a pain-free range several times a day. Repeat 10 to 15 times through a pain-free range several times a day.
4. Prone press ups
Dr. Bergman says this stretch is best for people experiencing a disc herniation as the cause of their sciatic pain. “It can help desensitize the nerve to reduce the symptoms experienced,” he explains. “When you do this [stretch] For days or weeks in a row, the pain you feel in your leg should be ‘centralised’ or moving towards the buttock. This is a sign of improvement in your condition!”
How: Lie on your stomach with your hands flat under your shoulders. Press gently with your hands only, allowing your back to arch away from the bed or floor, with your legs and pelvis pressing into the surface below you. It may cause a sensation or extend down the back of the affected leg. Hold for five seconds, then slowly lower back down. Repeat 10 times.
5. Double knees for chest stretch
According to Dr. Bergman, for people with arthritic sciatica pain, this gentle flexed position of the spine feels good on stiff joints. “The space provides a temporary boost for this stretched nerve, giving it time to heal,” he adds. However, he says this exercise is not recommended for anyone with a suspected disc herniation because it can exacerbate symptoms.
How: Lie on your back and gently hug both your knees to your chest. Hold this position with a few deep breaths for up to 30 seconds. Lower your legs back. Repeat thrice and throughout the day for best results.
Stretching for sciatica best exercises
Stretching can certainly be an integral component of an effective treatment plan for sciatica. Dr. Bergman recommends seeing a physical therapist to find the cause and help you get back to walking as productively as possible.
Either way, always use pain as your guide. Listen to your body, and if a stretch seems to increase your pain, stop. Be gentle with yourself. However, movement can be medicinal so don’t be afraid to try some of these stretches for sciatica and see if they help you.