Sciatica is the name used for a collective group of symptoms that point to an injury or condition that affects the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in the body. It attaches at the lumbar spine and runs through the buttocks and down the back of the legs to the feet. When an injury or compression occurs at any place along the nerve, pain can result. While sciatica can be extremely painful and interfere with daily life, the good news is that 80% of sciatica patients see their symptoms resolve without major interventions. Sciatica exercises can be a helpful part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
7 sciatica exercises
1. “Figure 4” stretch
This sciatica exercise works wonders on sciatic pain that is due to piriformis syndrome. Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Cross your right leg over the left, placing your right ankle on your left thigh. Flex your right foot and gently push the right knee away from you.
If you want more stretch, thread your right hand between your legs and clasp your hands behind your left thigh. Lift your left foot off the floor, and gently bring the whole shape into your chest. Hold this shape for five breaths, then repeat on the other side.
Even if you have sciatica on one side, doing these sciatica exercises on both sides will help you stay balanced in your body.
2. Folded standing “figure 4” stretch
Start in a standing position. Lift your right leg and place your right ankle just above your right knee (as in the pose above). Fold slowly to touch the ground, bending your knees as much as you need in order to touch the ground. Try to keep your tailbone tucked and low belly engaged to protect your low back. Take five breaths in this position.
To come out of this stretch, you can release your right foot to the ground. If you feel balanced, place your hands on your hips, drawing your elbows towards each other on the back, bend your knees, and tuck your tailbone to draw yourself up to standing.
Repeat on the other side.
3. Pigeon pose
Exercises for sciatica that stretch the piriformis muscle (like this one and the figure 4 stretch) can also relieve some of the low back pressure that can result from sciatica.
Start on all fours. Bring your right knee to just behind your right wrist, slightly to the outside of that wrist. Extend your left leg straight behind you. Your shin can be horizontal in front of the body if you have more flexibility in the hips, but if you feel pain, keep the right foot closer to that left hip. Untuck your back foot. Keep your right foot slightly flexed to protect your knee.
Tuck your tailbone under and shift your weight so that it is more centered over your hips (instead of resting in your arms). Breathe here, then on an exhale, fold forward over your front leg.
If you find your right hip is very far off the ground, you can fold up a blanket and prop yourself up. Rest your forehead on the floor or on your hands. Hold this pose for ten breaths. Repeat with your left leg.
These are not the push-ups you might normally think of, but they are slow sciatica exercises that support gentle stretching and muscle building. For some with extreme sciatica, simply lying on your front in preparation for a push-up may be enough.
After the push-ups, as the video demonstrates, gently pulling your knees to your chest is a great counter stretch.
5. Forward folds for radiating leg pain
Forward folds are a great way to not only identify radiating leg pain but also to eventually relieve it. The sciatica exercises in this video should initially only be completed under the supervision of a doctor or physical therapist. This is so that patients can understand what each exercise should feel like and help them to judge when they are too intense and should be discontinued.
6. Trigger point therapy
Trigger point therapy is a great way to release tight muscles. For sciatic pain that originates in the piriformis muscle, trigger point therapy is a sciatica exercise that can help.
Use a tennis ball or foam roller to locate a painful spot on your hip, buttock, or low back. When you find a painful area, a trigger point, rest your weight on that spot and breathe. This may be very painful to start with, so go slowly and gradually rest as much weight as you can. Breathe and stay on that spot until you feel a release or a reduction of pain (about 60 seconds or so), then gradually lift up your weight and move to another painful area.
You can also do this exercise in the “figure 4” position, seated.
7. Low lunge
To release tight hips and hip flexors that can sometimes occur as a result of sciatica, try a low lunge.
Begin standing, then step forward with your right foot, bending into that front knee. Step forward far enough so that your front knee is directly over your front ankle (not forward of it). Lower your back knee to the ground. Inhale and tuck your tailbone to engage your low belly and rise up, resting your hands on your right thigh.
Imagine you are dragging your right foot back while you drag your left knee forward. This will help you square your hips. Breathe in this deep lunge for five to ten breaths. For more of a challenge, inhale your arms up in the air, biceps in line with your ears. Keep your tailbone lengthening down to support your low back. Repeat with the other foot forward.
Sciatica exercises can be an effective way to deal with painful flare-ups. Before beginning any exercises for sciatica, talk to your doctor.