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Sciatica: Exercises for Pain Relief

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 19, 2020

The sciatic nerve is the longest and thickest nerve in the body. It starts with five nerves in the lower back that come together and form one nerve that runs through the buttocks and down the leg. Inflammation of the sciatic nerve is called sciatica. It can cause a burning or shooting pain in the buttocks or a pain that goes all the way down the leg. The pain usually occurs only on one side.

Sciatica is also known as lumbar radiculopathy. It may be caused by a bone spur on the spine or a herniated disk that presses on the nerve. Most people have some small abnormalities of the spine. For that reason, doctors don't rely on imaging tests to diagnose sciatica. Instead, they may give you instructions for self-care and suggest some exercises for you to do. Most of the time, these measures work.

Because the pain of sciatica is often intense, patients may assume that something is seriously wrong. Actually, about three out of four people will improve in a few weeks. More movement and less sitting usually help, and patients can use over-the-counter med ication for pain relief.

Conservative treatment may not be the best option for patients whose pain persists for over four months. Patients with long-lasting pain caused by a herniated disk may get better pain relief with back surgery

Exercises to Help Sciatica

Most exercises for sciatica are for the lower back. Check with your doctor before you try these exercises that you can do at home:

Knee-to-Chest Exercise

This simple stretch targets the lower buttock and upper thigh area. 

  • Step 1: Lie on your back with your legs bent and your feet flat on the floor. 
  • Step 2: Bring one knee to the chest while keeping the other foot on the floor.
  • Step 3: Keeping the lower back pressed to the floor, hold for up to 30 seconds.
  • Step 4: Repeat on the other side.

Try for 2 to 4 repetitions on each side. To make the exercise a little harder, keep one leg straight on the floor while raising the other to the chest. You can also bring both knees to the chest.

Continued

Standing Hamstring Stretch

Use care when doing this exercise. Hold on to something if necessary, and don't overstretch. 

  • Step 1: Stand straight up and put one foot on a slightly higher surface, like a stair step.
  • Step 2: Straighten the leg on the step and point the toes up. 
  • Step 3: Lean slightly forward while keeping the back straight.
  • Step 4: Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Remember to breathe.
  • Step 5: Repeat with the other leg.

Continued

Try for 2 to 3 repetitions with each leg. 

Pelvic Tilt Exercise

This is another deceptively simple exercise that is good for sciatica. 

  • Step 1:  Lie on your back with your legs bent and arms by your side.
  • Step 2: Tighten your stomach muscles, press your back into the floor, and rock the hips and pelvis slightly upward.   
  • Step 3: Hold this position while imagining making your belly button touch your backbone. Don't forget to breathe. 
  • Step 4: Release after a few seconds. Then repeat.

Try for 8 to 12 repetitions.

Glute Bridges

The glutes are a group of muscles in the buttocks. If they are tight, they can press on the sciatic nerve.   

  • Step 1: Lie on your back on the floor with knees bent. Feet should be about shoulder-width apart. Relax your arms at your sides. 
  • Step 2: Pushing through the heels, lift your hips until your body forms a straight line from knees to shoulders.
  • Step 3: Hold the position for a few seconds.
  • Step 4: Slowly lower the hips to the floor. Then repeat.

Continued

Good form is important for this exercise. Avoid arching or rounding the back. Try for 2 or 3 sets of 8 to 10 repetitions.

Lying Deep Gluteal Stretch

If you lack flexibility, you may need to modify this exercise slightly.

  • Step 1: Lie on your back with legs bent. Raise your right ankle, and rest it on your left knee. 
  • Step 2: Using both hands, lace your fingers behind your left thigh and gently pull it toward you, keeping your head and back on the floor.
  • Step 3: Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
  • Step 4: Repeat with the other leg. 

You may need to elevate your head slightly with a book or firm cushion under it. If you can't reach your thigh easily, you can loop a towel around the thigh and use it to pull your thigh toward you. Do 2 to 3 repetitions with each leg.

Safety Considerations

Since sciatica has various causes, one exercise program doesn't work for everyone. Never force yourself through an exercise that doesn't feel right. Instead, focus on finding ones that work for you. As you improve, you may be able to do some movements that didn't work at first. Still, being consistent with your program is more important than ramping up the difficulty.

If you have other health conditions, you should talk to your doctor before trying these exercises for sciatica. If you experience increased pain after exercising, see your doctor.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic: “Sciatica.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Sciatica: Of all the nerve.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Taming the pain of sciatica: For most people, time heals and less is more.”

Kaiser Permanente: “Low Back Pain: Exercises.”

Mayo Clinic: “Sciatica.”

National Health Service: “Exercises for Sciatica.”

The New England Journal of Medicine: “Surgery versus Conservative Care for Persistent Sciatica Lasting 4 to 12 Months.”

Silver Sneakers: “9 Exercises That Can Ease Sciatica Pain.”

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