There’s nothing fun about sciatica. But there are some simple things that can help this common ailment feel a little better: sciatica stretches and exercises. By regularly incorporating stretches for sciatica pain into your routine, you may be able to assuage some of the discomfort associated with sciatic nerve pain. And while sciatic nerve stretches may not be a cure-all, they can help you move about your day-to-day life a little easier. And that’s definitely a solid win.
Here, we’ve rounded up must-know info on sciatica followed by seven great stretching exercises for sciatica. First though, some important caveats: Most cases of mild sciatica go away over time. But if your sciatica feels severe or like it’s getting worse, it’s a good idea to check in with a doctor or physical therapist who can help determine the ideal treatment for you, since the best exercises for sciatica can vary person to person. That said there are some general sciatica stretches and exercises that can make a difference for most folks, and we’ve rounded them up here. Keep scrolling for everything you need to know.
What is sciatica?
There are some sciatica symptoms to know: Sciatica is a pain, numbness, or tingling that starts at the butt and sometimes goes down the back of the leg, behind the knee, and sometimes all the way down to the toes, physical therapist Ryan Chow, PT, DPT, founder of Reload in New York City, tells SELF. Sciatica happens when there’s irritation in the sciatic nerve, which runs from your lower back through your hips, butt, and down each leg. Usually sciatica happens on just one side of your body, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The good news about sciatica: “It’s very common,” Chow says. “And it’s not anything to freak out about.” Like we mentioned, in many cases, sciatic pain usually goes away on its own over time. And in most cases, sciatica doesn’t lead to long-term damage or long-term complications. In the interim, though, certain stretches and exercises may help alleviate some of the discomfort.
How stretches and exercises can help sciatica feel better
Certain stretches and exercises can help ease sciatic nerve pain. But, how, exactly, can movement be helpful?
Well, oftentimes, sciatica happens when we have pressure on our nerves that exit through the low back, Kellen Scantlebury, DPT, CSCS, founder of Fit Club NY, tells SELF. So by extending your low back, similar to the way you would in gentle lower back stretches if you’re dealing with lower back pain, you can help reduce some of this tension and pressure that results in sciatic pain.
You can also help ease sciatica with stretches that incorporate your hamstrings and calves, says Scantlebury. Since the sciatic nerve flows in the same direction as these muscle groups, stretches that target the hamstrings and calves will hit the sciatic nerve as well. Moreover, stretching the piriformis can help alleviate pressure on the sciatic nerve, explains Scantlebury, since the sciatic nerve can travel through the piriformis muscle, above it, or under it depending on your individual anatomy.
Certain strength moves can also help sciatica by distributing load more evenly across the body, and thus reducing stress from the area that might be causing the sciatic nerve pain, says Chow. For instance, a plank can help straighten the spine and create tension in your front core, thus reducing load from your low back. And a door squat (essentially, when you squat while holding onto a door handle so that your torso stays upright), can teach you to engage your entire body as you hinge at the hips and upright the spine, thus making everyday movements, like bending down to tie your shoe, less painful. Basically, strength moves help coordinate the parts of your musculoskeletal system to move more efficiently.
How to stay safe if you have sciatica
The biggest safety tip for managing sciatica? Stay active and move frequently, Chow says. Certain movements may make your sciatica feel worse, but what those movements are can vary person to person, so pay attention to how your body feels and adjust accordingly.
Now, if your sciatic pain feels like it’s getting worse, if the symptoms start to extend further and further down your leg, and/or you have associated muscle weakness, then that’s a sign you should get checked out by a doctor or physical therapist, Chow says. You should also visit a professional if your symptoms persist more than 48 hours, if you have trouble standing up straight, if your pain feels like it’s more than a four out of 10, if you can’t sit for more than 20 minutes without experiencing numbness and tingling, or if a simple action (say, sitting down on the toilet) causes numbness and tingling that extends into your feet, Scantlebury says.
Stretches and exercises for sciatica
The following stretches and exercises may help ease sciatica. The first three are gentle stretches recommended by Scantlebury; you can do them as a series as often as every day. As you stretch, “let pain be your guide,” Scantlebury says. “If things are becoming more painful, you might want to adjust your range of motion so you’re not getting that deep of a stretch.”
For the strengthening aspect, Chow recommends three particular moves: a plank (you can modify with a hands-elevated plank), side plank (you can modify with a side plank on your knees), and door handle squat. Do the three moves up to three or four times a day, Chow says. As you get stronger, continue increasing the challenge so you keep your muscles working, either by amping up the number of reps and sets, or progressing from the beginner-friendly modifications to the more advanced variations.
Demoing the exercises below are Jessica Rihal (GIF 1 and 3), a plus-sized yoga instructor (200-HR) and a strong advocate of fitness/wellness for all bodies; Gail Barranda Rivas (GIF 2), a certified group fitness instructor, functional strength coach, Pilates and yoga instructor; Alex Orr (GIF 4, 6-7), a non-diet NASM-certified personal trainer and CNC, and host of The Birdie and the Bees podcast; and Delise Johnson (GIF 5), CEO and strength coach at Wellness and Weights
Standing Hamstring Stretch
- Stand in a relaxed position with your hands at your sides, core engaged, and feet hip-width apart.
- Step forward with your left foot, keeping your leg perfectly straight and flexing your foot so that only your heel rests on the floor.
- Hinge, bending at the hip, and swoop down with straight arms tracing the length of your leg. Stand, keeping your arms straight and bringing your hands overhead, before lowering them to your side. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings, as well as lengthening in your spine as you stand and stretch.
- Now step forward with the other foot and repeat on the other side. Continue to alternate sides, switching sides every 3–5 seconds, for 2 minutes.
This move should elicit a nice stretch through the hamstrings and calves, says Scantlebury.
Lying Figure Four Stretch
- Lie on your back.
- Cross your left foot over your right quad, and bend your right knee.
- Hold the back of your right leg and gently pull it toward your chest.
- When you feel a comfortable stretch, hold there for 30–45 seconds.
- Switch sides and repeat.
This exercise stretches the lateral glute muscles as well as the piriformis muscles, says Scantlebury.
- Lie on your stomach with your hands directly underneath your shoulders, hips and chest on the floor, palms flat on the ground. This is the starting position.
- Press through your palms to extend your spine and lift your shoulders off the floor, while keeping your hips on the floor. Extend your spine as far as your range of motion allows and hold at the top for one to two seconds. Then, gently return to the starting position and pause there for 1–2 seconds. That’s 1 rep.
- Continue performing reps for 2 minutes. Your goal is to gradually increase the range of motion in your spine.
This stretch, a common pose in yoga classes, helps extend the spine and thus alleviates pressure on the low back.
- Get into a high plank with your hands elevated on a sturdy box, step, or chair. Keep your hands directly under your shoulders, and your neck in a neutral position with your eyes focused down in front of your hands. Keep your core, butt, and quads tight, and avoid arching your back. Think length—imagine that you’re extending out from the crown of your head and out through your heels simultaneously.
- Hold for 30 seconds. Rest, then repeat for 2–3 rounds totals.
As you hold this pose, make sure you primarily feel it in your core and not other parts of your body, like your back or shoulders. The higher your hands, the easier the move will be. As you get more comfortable with the move, gradually try shorter surfaces until you are ready to try the forearm plank below. If 30 seconds feels too challenging, start with 10- to 15-second holds.
- Place your forearms on the floor, elbows directly underneath your shoulders, hands facing forward so that your arms are parallel. Extend your legs behind you, feet hip-width apart. Tuck your tailbone and engage your core, butt, and quads.
- Hold for 30 seconds. Rest as needed, then repeat for 2–4 rounds total.
This exercise is a more challenging version of the elevated plank. Again, make sure you primarily feel it in your core and not your back or shoulders.
Forearm Side Plank on Knees
- Get into a kneeling forearm side plank by propping up your body on your right forearm, with your elbow stacked underneath your shoulder and your hand in front of your body. Extend your legs, but keep both knees bent and stack your left knee on top of your right.
- Squeeze your abs and glutes to lift your hips off the floor with your left hand resting on your hip.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds. Rest as needed, then repeat for 2–4 rounds total.
This is another strength exercise that can help you learn how to properly straighten your spine and engage the front of your core to reduce compression on your back. If 30 seconds feels too challenging, start with 10- to 15-second holds.
Forearm Side Plank
- Get into a forearm side plank by propping up your body on your right forearm, with your elbow stacked underneath your shoulder and your hand in front of your body. Extend your legs and stack your left foot on top of your right, and then squeeze your abs and glutes to lift your hips off the floor. Your left hand should be resting on your hip.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds. Rest as needed, then repeat for 2–4 rounds total.
Once you’ve mastered the forearm side plank on knees, increase the challenge with this exercise. After you’ve done the plank progression, try the door handle squat; do 10–15 reps of that move, repeated for 3–4 rounds total.
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