Sciatica: Exercises for Pain Relief

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on June 02, 2024
8 min read

The sciatic nerve is the longest and thickest nerve in your body. It's actually a bundle of five nerves that start in your lower back and run through your buttocks and down each leg. Inflammation of the sciatic nerve is called sciatica. It can cause a burning or shooting pain in your buttocks or a pain that goes all the way down your leg. You usually have the pain only on one side.

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

How long does sciatica last?

Because sciatica pain is often intense, you might think something is seriously wrong. But about 3 out of 4 people with sciatica usually improve in a few weeks. Moving more and sitting less usually help, and you can use over-the-counter medication for pain relief.

Self-care and pain medication may not be the best options if your pain lasts more than 4 months. Your doctor may recommend physical therapy, in which a therapist guides you through passive and active exercises to ease pain and prevent future back problems. Those with long-lasting pain caused by a herniated disk may get better pain relief with back surgery.

Gentle movement helps relieve sciatica pain. It's OK to rest for the first couple of days after a sciatica attack. But don't stay in bed or sit for long periods. Start doing gentle back strengthening and stretching exercises as soon as possible. You can slowly return to your normal activity level over 2-3 weeks. But for the first 6 weeks, avoid heavy lifting and movements that involve twisting your back.

See your doctor if the pain doesn't improve or gets worse.

Most exercises for sciatica are for the lower back. You can do these exercises at home, but it's best to check with your doctor before you try them. Try to do these moves at least twice a week, but you can do them more often if that feels OK. Don't do any exercise that makes your pain worse.

Knee-to-chest stretch

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

  • Step 1: Lie on your back with your legs bent and 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 doing two to four 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 your chest.

Standing hamstring stretch

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

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

Try for two to three repetitions with each leg.

Pelvic tilts

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

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

Try for two to eight repetitions.

Glute bridge

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

  • Step 1: Lie down with your back on the floor and your knees bent. Your feet should be about shoulder-width apart. Relax your arms at your sides.
  • Step 2: Pushing through your 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 your hips to the floor.

Good form is important for this exercise. Avoid arching or rounding your back. Try for two or three sets of 8-10 repetitions.

Lying gluteal stretch

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

  • Step 1: Lie on your back with your 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 20-30 seconds.
  • Step 4: Repeat with the other leg.

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

Clamshell exercise

This move strengthens both your core and lower back.

  • Step 1: Lie on one side, keeping both your legs bent with one stacked on top of the other. Keep your ab muscles engaged and think about pulling your belly button toward your spine.
  • Step 2: Raise your top leg, keeping your knees bent and feet together, until your legs form a shape that looks like an open clamshell. Steady yourself with your top arm on the floor.
  • Step 3: Hold for 5-30 seconds, then slowly lower your leg.

Do 8-10 reps, then repeat with the other leg on top.

Bird dog pose

For this exercise, you extend one arm and the opposite leg to form a shape that looks something like a hunting dog when it "points."

  • Step 1: Get on your hands and knees, hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Keep your ab muscles active and your gaze focused about a foot in front of your hands.
  • Step 2: Straighten and lift your left arm out straight in front. At the same time, lift your right leg straight behind you. Your arm, leg, and back should form a straight line.
  • Step 3. Hold briefly, then lower your arm and leg.
  • Step 4: Repeat with your right arm and left leg.

Do 8-10 reps on each side.

Other sciatica exercises

Low-impact aerobic activities can also help ease sciatica pain and prevent further episodes. You might try:

  • Walking, either in a pool or on land
  • Swimming or water aerobics
  • Riding an exercise bike
  • Using an elliptical machine

Movements that involve bending, lifting, or twisting can make sciatica pain worse. So can lifting heavy weights and jarring, high-impact activities such as running on a hard surface.

While you're healing, avoid:

  • Double leg lifts (raising both legs while lying on your back) and leg circles
  • Squats
  • Toe touches or forward bends
  • Bent-over rows
  • Twists, such as the Russian twist ab exercise

Since sciatica can have different causes, one exercise program doesn't work for everyone. Never force yourself through an exercise that doesn't feel right. Instead, focus on finding some 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, talk to your doctor before trying these exercises for sciatica. If you have more pain after exercising, see your doctor.

What should you do for unbearable sciatica pain?

If your pain feels unbearable, see your doctor. Also, see a doctor if you notice:

  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • A pins-and-needles feeling

Go to the emergency room if you have:

  • Pain so bad it prevents you from going about your normal activities for more than a few hours
  • Sudden, serious pain or numbness after you suffer physical trauma (such as a fall or car wreck) 
  • Weakness in your muscles
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control

Gentle exercise can help ease sciatica and other types of back pain in several ways:

  • It strengthens the muscles that support your spine.
  • It improves flexibility to make movement more comfortable.
  • It boosts blood flow to your lower back, which promotes healing and eases stiffness.

But a home exercise program can't always do the trick. Your doctor may recommend medication and/or physical therapy. Along with teaching you exercises to ease your back pain, a physical therapist can provide sciatica supportive therapy such as:

  • Hot and/or cold packs to ease pain and relax muscles
  • Massage therapy to loosen muscles in your legs and lower back
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), in which a machine delivers a mild electric current through the muscles of your back and legs
  • Hydrotherapy, in which warm water and massage jets help boost blood flow and relax muscles

Sciatica is inflammation of the sciatic nerve, which runs from your lower back through your buttocks and down your leg. Gentle stretching exercises can help ease the pain of sciatica. If it gets worse or doesn't improve in a few weeks, see your doctor.

What is the fastest way to cure sciatica?

The fastest way to get relief from sciatica pain is to see a doctor, who can create a treatment plan based on your personal situation.

Over-the-counter pain relievers help some people, but be careful to follow the package instructions correctly. You could also try hot and cold therapy: For the first 3 days after the pain starts, apply a cold pack wrapped in a towel to the painful area for 15-20 minutes at a time. Do this as often as you need to. After the first 3 days, switch to a heating pad. Leave it in place for no more than 20 minutes at a time.

What are the types of sciatica?

There are two types of conditions that doctors may refer to as sciatica:

  • True sciatica, a condition directly affecting the sciatic nerve.
  • Sciatica-like conditions that involve the sciatic nerve and have symptoms like those of sciatica

What causes sciatica buttock pain?

Your sciatic nerve runs through your buttocks and down your legs. Sciatica can cause pain in any area of your body that has nerves connecting to the sciatic nerve.

What to do if your sciatic nerve is acting up?

When sciatica flares up, try:

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Heat and/or ice pads
  • Stretching exercises
  • Low-impact cardio exercise 
  • Avoiding activities that hurt, such as lifting heavy items and twisting or bending your spine

If sciatica treatment at home doesn't help, see your doctor.

Where does the sciatic nerve run? 

The sciatic nerve is a bundle of five nerves that start at your lower spine. They run through each hip and buttock, and down each leg to just below the knee.