Sciatica is caused by compression of the sciatic nerve, a large nerve that starts outside the base of your spine near your pelvis and runs from the balls of your feet to your feet. Pain with sciatica may occur anywhere along this pathway or may be widespread.
“People with sciatica may experience sharp shooting, throbbing, or burning pain in that area,” says Abby Halpin, DPT, PT, a physical therapist and owner of Forte Performance & Physical Therapy. They may have altered sensations, such as numbness or tingling, explains Dr. Halpin. “Because the sciatic nerve carries motor information, the leg may feel heavy, weak, or difficult to move,” she says. “Symptoms may last only a few seconds or may be constant and chronic.”
What causes sciatica?
Dr. Halpin says that while sciatica can happen to anyone, it’s more common in people between the ages of 30 and 50. Symptoms often come on gradually. “It can happen when someone is in a position that compresses nerve tissue for a long time, such as sitting, standing, working in an awkward position, or making repetitive movements for long periods of the day, especially bending or twisting,” explains. Dr. Halpin.
“Imagine falling asleep in your arms and waking up with tingling or numbness,” she says. “This is also a form of nerve compression, albeit a very temporary one, somewhat similar to how sciatica can start. However, with sciatica, it’s not just one night of sleeping in an odd position – it’s usually many weeks or months of being in this compressive position that causes sciatica. problematic for those affected.”
Dr. Halpin says that a lack of physical activity is often at the root of acute or sudden sciatica because people who are less active may be less resilient to movements that compress the spine or legs. This, in turn, can cause sciatic nerve pain and inflammation. “A classic example is someone who is quite still in their daily life but then one day bends over to lift a heavy couch,” she says. “The lower back joints and the soft tissues around the nerves are not used to this kind of weight and movement and will send a signal to the brain that something dangerous is about to happen. The resulting pain can get you out of a dangerous situation but it can be ongoing sciatica until you recover.”
How strength training can relieve sciatica symptoms
Dr. Halpin says that strength training is the best way to build resilience against the types of loads and compressions that can otherwise cause sciatica. “By practicing lifting heavy weights often, the muscles are better equipped to withstand the compressive load and can protect the sciatic nerve from putting too much pressure on it,” she says.
Strength training enables people to move, sit and stand in different positions, Dr. Halpin adds. “By having a broad movement ‘vocabulary,’ people can avoid using the same movement or position all the time, which means spending less time stressing their sciatic nerve in the same way,” he explains. “Resilience and diversity are vital to staying healthy.”
7 Strength Training Exercises for Sciatica Pain
1. 90-90 hip lift
This exercise builds strength in your glutes, hamstrings and core. Begin by lying on the seat of a chair or against a wall with your feet on your back on the floor. Your hips and knees are bent at 90 degrees (hence the name) with your shins parallel to the floor, your arms extended by your sides, palms pressed to the floor. From here, without physically moving your foot, press your heel down to activate the back of your foot. Then, tuck your tailbone and lift it an inch or two off the floor before lowering it back down—without lifting your lower back. You should feel your hamstrings working. Continue for 30 to 60 seconds.
This is a basic exercise that strengthens the entire posterior chain (back of your body). You’ll also get a good stretch in your hamstrings and glutes, which will lengthen the sciatic nerve. Start by holding a weight or a household object, such as a jug of laundry detergent, in front of your body with your arms straight. Keep a soft bend in your knees as you lean in at the hips, keeping your back flat, but allowing your torso to fold forward at a 45-degree angle as you slide the weight to the floor in front of your shins. Press through your heels to stand up, squeezing your glutes up. Complete three sets of 8–10 times.
Rockbacks are one of the best exercises for sciatica and low back dysfunction because they increase the mind-body connection in your core muscles and build strength in the deep abdominal and low-back muscles. These muscles can help protect the spine and nerves. Begin by getting down on your hands and knees. Keep your arms straight and press your hips to rotate on your heels while keeping your back flat. Slowly return to your starting position. That one is representative. Complete three sets of 8-10 repetitions.
4. Diagonal chops
This is a good strength training exercise for sciatica because it strengthens the entire core while simultaneously mobilizing the spine. Begin standing with feet hip-width apart and knees gently bent. Hold a weight or household object such as a water bottle in both hands. Reach up to a diagonal to your right and feel your trunk and left leg (ankle high) to rotate to that side. Reverse to swing the weight (with control) out to your opposite hip, so you’re making a big, diagonal sweeping motion across your body. That one is representative. Complete three sets of 8-10 repetitions per side.
5. Goblet squats
Dr. Halpin says that strengthening exercises like these can help ensure your body is flexible and able to perform functional movements during daily activities. Begin standing with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Clasp your hands together in front of your chest. (Optional: Hold the top of a dumbbell vertically in both hands.) Squat with your knees bent and your hips back and down toward your heels. Go as low as possible while keeping your heels on the floor. Keep your elbows towards or just inside your knees. Press through your heels to stand all the way back. That one is representative. Complete three sets of 8-10 repetitions.
This is a good total-body strengthening exercise. It also builds core strength and lower-back stability. Dr. Halpin says you can make this exercise more difficult by holding a dumbbell or weighted object. Begin standing with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, elbows bent and fists near your shoulders. Squat to a comfortable depth while keeping your heels on the floor. Stand back, keeping your arms straight up as you do this. Bring your arms back to the starting position. That one is representative. Complete three sets of 8-10 repetitions.
7. Round planks
This exercise is great for sciatica because it strengthens your core while not putting too much stress on your lower back. Get down on your hands and knees. Exhale and round your back slightly and feel your stomach engage. Return each leg into a plank, keeping your hips low and back rounded. Hold the position for 4-5 breaths, focusing on exhaling slowly and fully with each breath. Repeat 3-4 more times.
How long does it usually take for sciatica pain to go away?
Dr. Halpin says that many people with sciatica symptoms often worry that they will have sciatica forever, but recovery is certainly possible. “Symptoms can take up to a year to fully resolve, but that doesn’t mean acute symptoms last long,” she says. “The most chronic symptoms are usually small areas of numbness in the legs or feet. An evaluation by a physical therapist is the best way to figure out how and why the symptoms started, as well as to plan changes that will reduce pain and weakness.”
Remember, movement is medicine. Staying active can help prevent the nerve compression that often causes this type of pain, and if you’re already experiencing it, strength training exercises for upper sciatica can help relieve symptoms.