When sciatica pain strikes, you may be tempted to take to your bed to rest. You’ll realize very quickly that not only does resting not help in many cases, it might even make your pain worse. But is walking good for sciatica, or other types of exercise? Definitely. Here’s what you need to know.
What is sciatica?
Sciatica describes a particular kind of pain. The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in your body. It originates in the lumbar spine and then runs across the buttocks, down the hip, and all the way to the foot along the outside of your leg. Any injury anywhere on this nerve can cause sciatic pain.
Sciatica symptoms may include:
- Radiating pain
- Burning pain
- Hip pain
- Pain that runs down from your lower back to your legs
- Pain that increases when sitting for too long
- Numbness and tingling in the extremities
- Weakness in the affected limb
Bulging or herniated discs are typical causes of sciatic pain, as is spinal stenosis. Sciatic pain can also be caused by osteoarthritis, spinal fracture, or disc degeneration when the bones of the spine place pressure on the sciatic nerve.
People between the ages of 45 and 64 are most likely to experience sciatic pain. Risk factors include things like repetitive stress injury, smoking, and an increase in height or weight.
Sciatica typically only affects one side of your body, but there are a few serious symptoms that you should treat as an emergency. Loss of bowel or bladder control may be a sign of a serious condition. If you experience this with sciatic pain, seek emergency medical care.
Is walking good for sciatica?
One of the best questions to ask your doctor when you receive a diagnosis of sciatica is this: Is walking good for sciatic nerve pain? The answer is a resounding yes for the vast majority of patients. Walking for sciatica is a first-line treatment for both pain relief and healing.
Consider the following research:
- A study of 35,000 people found that commuting by walking or biking reduced the risk of developing sciatica by 33%
- Physical activity, including walking, had better outcomes in the long-run than surgery
- Walking reduces inflammation and pain
Many additional studies have shown that the old sciatica treatment of bed rest actually does more harm than good. These days, your doctor is much more likely to tell you to lace up your walking shoes and hit the trail.
How to create a sciatica walking program
If you have not been active for some time, it’s important to ease into a sciatica walking program, especially if your pain is intense.
Here are eight tips to get started.
1. Talk to your doctor
Although the vast majority of doctors will tell you to get more exercise, they might have some suggestions (or restrictions) for you before you start. This may depend on your sciatica severity as well as other comorbid conditions.
At the very least, it’s important to let them know that you are adding another level of treatment so they can help track your progress.
2. Make sure you have supportive shoes
For some people, their back pain is intensified by improper footwear. Before you hit the road, visit a full-service shoe store to make sure your shoes are properly fitted for good support.
Your shoes can make a tremendous difference in terms of how good (or bad) walking feels. Find our recommendations for shoes for back pain here.
3. Start slowly
If you are just getting started, try walking slowly. A pace of three miles per hour (one mile every 20 minutes or so) should be a good starting point. With sciatica, a slower pace may be necessary. Thankfully, slow walking is just as good for rehabilitation as fast walking.
Don’t push it, though. If five minutes of walking daily (or less) is where you need to start, start there. Instead of going for longer, stand up and move frequently at first. Your goal is slowly strengthening your back and relieving pain, not making it worse by pushing yourself too far, too fast.
As you feel stronger, gradually add either time or intensity to your walk. In other words, you can maintain the same slow pace but walk for longer, or you can speed it up and walk for the same amount of time – not both at once.
4. Walk properly
When it comes to sciatica, a shorter stride is more supportive. Longer strides can easily irritate the sciatic nerve, causing pain. As you gain fitness and your pain recedes, you can take longer strides. When you start your walking program, though, keep them short.
As you walk, land between the arch of your foot and your heel, then roll up to the ball of the foot. Walking in this way naturally shortens your stride and slows you down.
Make sure one foot is on the ground at all times, and imagine that you are placing each foot along a line as you walk. This will force you to engage your core as you walk.
5. Mind your posture
Whether you are walking or sitting, proper posture is key to rehabilitating a painful case of sciatica. Stand (or sit) tall with your chin level to the ground and your shoulders back.
Lightly engage your core muscles as you sit or walk, moving your navel gently towards your spine. Relax your shoulders down and keep your core engaged as much as possible during your walk (and your day).
Look up and ahead at a point in the distance instead of down at your feet. This keeps your spine tall and your chin level.
6. Find the right place to walk
When you first begin walking to relieve sciatic pain, it’s important to choose a firm, level surface to walk on. Even a gentle incline can be painful, and uneven surfaces can cause more pressure on your sciatic nerve.
Avoid loose gravel, sandy beaches, or other uneven terrain as you begin to heal.
7. Consider a treadmill
If the weather is bad, you might be tempted to skip a walking session. Don’t.
Consider using a treadmill for those days that are slippery, rainy, or otherwise unpleasant outside. One of the major benefits of a treadmill is that you can set your walking pace and be consistent for a set amount of time.
Treadmills also have handrails which brings us to our final tip.
8. Use braces, a cane, or other walking aids as needed
You may be using a brace to support your lower back during rehabilitation, but consider using a cane or another type of walking aid as you start your walking program. Many people resist the idea of a cane or walker, especially if they had an active lifestyle before sciatic pain, but take heart. If using a sciatica walking cane or a walker helps to heal your sciatica faster, then you will get back to your life sooner.
And, as always, if your pain gets worse or changes, make sure to check in with your doctor. Pay attention to what your body is telling you, and don’t rush your rehab.
What exercises should I avoid with sciatica?
Low impact, full-body exercise like walking and swimming are great for sciatica. However, there are other types of exercise that can aggravate your sciatic nerve and cause even more pain.
- Rowing: For a healthy body, rowing is a great low-impact, high-intensity full-body workout. But the action of leaning over and reaching forward can place tremendous pressure on your sciatic nerve.
- Double leg lifts: Double leg lifts pose a threat to even the healthiest of backs, but with sciatica it’s double trouble. The tendency is to arch the lower back to support the lift instead of using the core muscles. Avoid.
- Leg circles: Improving range of motion is a great idea – except when your body is healing form sciatic pain. Swinging your legs in a circle can compress or otherwise aggravate your sciatic nerve.
Your doctor or physical therapist may have more exercises to avoid when you have sciatic pain.
Other sciatica exercises to try
The great news is that there are tons of exercises that will work to get rid of sciatic pain, in addition to walking. As always, get the okay from your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.
Here are our top five types of exercise for sciatica.
Yoga routines for sciatica
This is a great full-body exercise that not only helps to heal sciatica but also helps to deal with the mental and emotional impacts of pain. Yoga for sciatica can be as intense or relaxing as you like.
In the acute stages of pain, your yoga might focus on gentle routines that move you slowly through a series of poses designed to relieve pain. As you feel stronger, you might move into standing poses and more intense hip openers.
The good news is that you can release pressure on your sciatic nerve at any time with a few easy stretches. The stretches below take their cue from yoga as well, but there is no need to grab your mat. Many of these can be done anytime, anywhere – even in the car or at your desk.
Try the following easy stretches for sciatica:
Strength and core building exercises
In addition to the stretching and pain-relieving exercises above, sciatica exercises that target core strength are crucial. While some exercises focus solely on the front of the body, we know that the muscles along the side of the core are just as important. Try side planks (in many different variations), bent-knee curl-ups, and planks for core strength.
When you start building core strength, make sure to maintain proper form. It is better to do one exercise in perfect form than ten exercises out of alignment. This can actually be harmful to your recovery. As with your walking program, start slowly and pay attention to how your body responds.
Stretch your hamstrings
Tight hamstrings contribute to lower back pain, including sciatica. While a full standing forward fold places too much pressure on your lower back during the acute stages of pain, there are other variations that can relieve pain and pressure while stretching and lengthening your hamstrings.
Start with the following gentle hamstring openers:
Make sure you are stretching your hamstrings properly and gently as you begin. Don’t bounce, and don’t strain or move too quickly.
A pain specialist can help support your walking program and any other healing treatments for your sciatic pain. You can find a pain doctor in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here: https://paindoctor.com/pain-management-doctors/.