Many people who suffer from sciatica turn to yoga for relief. This ancient practice has some modern benefits for today’s patients. From reducing stress to stretching tight muscles to inspiring inner calm, yoga for sciatica may be able to help with your pain. Here’s how.
What is sciatica?
Sciatica pain is caused by a problem with the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back through the hip and down the leg. This can be a confusing condition to have, since pain in a leg may not indicate a problem with the leg, but rather, a pinched nerve in the low back.
The following video gives an overview of this painful condition.
What are common sciatica symptoms?
Sciatica pain isn’t always felt in one particular place, however, and usually feels as though it’s radiating down into the hip, buttock, and down the leg. (The sciatic nerve separates in the lower back and runs down each leg separately, so symptoms are usually felt in one leg or the other.)
In addition to pain, a person with sciatica may also experience:
- Numbness in the lower body
- Sharp and shooting
- Pain that is worse after the person has been sitting for a long period of time
- Weakness in the lower body
- Lack of control over bladder or bowels
It’s estimated that more than 5% of U.S. adults suffer from sciatica. Certain factors can place a person at a higher risk for experiencing sciatica pain, including a person’s job or hobbies: A person who frequently carries heavy objects or makes rotating movements increases the risk of developing the condition.
People who are largely inactive, overweight, or have been diagnosed with diabetes are also at risk of experiencing sciatica pain. And as a person grows older, the greater the likelihood of experiencing the condition. Some researchers estimate that over a person’s lifetime, the chances of developing sciatica are as high as 40%.
Can yoga for sciatica help me?
Sciatica can have many different causes, from herniated discs to piriformis muscle tension. Yoga can help in cases with tight muscles, but you should proceed with caution if you haven’t diagnosed the cause of your sciatica pain yet. In some cases, yoga could actually exacerbate or worsen your pain. (We talk about more of the causes of sciatica here.) Always talk to your doctor before trying yoga.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health does note that multiple studies support the use of yoga for lower back pain, with effective results. The literature fully supports yoga for lower back pain, with one recent study showing that it’s as effective as physical therapy. Another study from the Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation did report positive benefits from yoga for sciatica, noting that: “Yoga therapy can be safe and beneficial for patients with nsLBP or sciatica, accompanied by disc extrusions and bulges.”
However, specific research on yoga for sciatica is limited. So while yoga can play an important part in reducing muscle tension in your legs and back, it may not fully “cure” or “heal” your condition. Always work closely with your doctor to create a comprehensive pain management plan for you.
Yoga for sciatica routines
The internet is a great place to find easy yoga routines, with images or even video. Once you’ve visited a class and have become more familiar with yoga basics, you can incorporate some of these programs into your practice.
Yoga poses from Yoga Journal
Yoga Journal is one of the leading experts for yoga practitioners around the world. They’ve created a dedicated yoga practice for sciatica patients that focus on 30 different poses, including:
- Dolphin pose
- High lunge
- Staff pose
- Reclining hero pose
Yoga with Andriene
Adriene’s yoga class uses a gentle and easy routine that’s focused on solid preventative care and injury prevention. This routine is a full 30 minutes.
Yoga International’s sciatica yoga routine
Another leader in yoga practices worldwide is Yoga International. In their post on sciatica, they go in-depth into seven poses to reduce and relieve sciatica pain.
Some of these include:
- Simple seated twist
- Standing twist
- Hip openers
How to get started with yoga for sciatica
Yoga can be intimidating. A quick glance at the newsstand shows yoga magazines with impossibly fit, smilingly young, gorgeous people twisted into pretzel-y poses that seem unimaginable. This can be even more intimidating if you are just starting your practice or are contemplating taking your first class. Never fear: yoga is accessible and easy to start, even if you are suffering from sciatica pain. You just need a few tips to begin.
Find the right class for you
Start by finding a class in your area. Because yoga emphasizes proper alignment and breathing, it is important to start with a trained teacher before diving in at home. A simple internet search for yoga classes should turn up good results, even if you are in a smaller town. If you cannot find a stand-alone studio, visit your local gym or YMCA to see if they offer classes.
If you do find a studio, see if they offer a two-week unlimited class pass or a free introductory class. It is good to experience many different styles of yoga when you are beginning. You may be drawn to one in particular, but it is also good to vary your practice. Look too for any classes that focus on stress release or chronic conditions.
What to bring to class
One of the good things about yoga is that all it really requires is you.
Most yoga studios offer mats, blocks, straps, and other props that you may need, but if you want your own mat those are available in large retail stores or online. Don’t let lack of a mat stop you. If you want your own but need to order it online, place your order and just use the studio’s mat until yours arrives.
When you go to your first class, make sure to go on an empty stomach. Eat a light meal or snack no less than two hours before you go to class. Any more than that and you may feel uncomfortable in some of the twists or more active postures. Wear clothes that are comfortable but not too baggy. The teachers need to see your knees and your shoulders to help with proper alignment. Some practitioners wear shorts, some wear leggings, and some wear yoga pants. T-shirts or tank tops are fine for the top.
Because the classes are usually in close quarters, do not use strong perfumes, body sprays, or deodorants. Some people can be sensitive to these, and you don’t want to cause discomfort.
What to expect in your first sciatica yoga class
So you are on your mat. You are in comfortable clothes. You haven’t eaten in a couple hours. What now?
Classes vary from teacher to teacher, but generally they begin with centering yourself and coming into the present moment through your breath. Classes may start with gentle seated stretches, or they may begin with standing poses. Whatever the order, most classes have a combination of seated, standing, and lying down postures, and they all end with shivasana (or savasana), corpse pose, where you lie down, releasing all effort and simply breathing. Then you roll up your mat and head home, making sure to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
Maybe you are thinking that you need to be fit and flexible before you begin yoga, but the fact is that yoga is how you get fit and flexible. The postures may seem difficult or impossible to begin with, but the best part of yoga is that it accepts all body types and all levels of fitness, even for those who suffer from sciatica. You simply start wherever you are and build from there. In class, other people are so busy worrying about themselves and their breath that they have no time to look at what you are doing. Showing up to the class is a huge hurdle, and taking that step means you are ready.
What other treatments help with sciatica?
To diagnose sciatica, a doctor will typically use a combination of physical examinations as well as imaging tests, such as CT scans, MRIs, and X-rays. Most cases of sciatica pain respond well to treatment and the patient will experience improvement within two months following lifestyle changes, yoga for sciatica, physical therapy, bed rest, and use of NSAIDs.
For more serious cases, however, cortisone injections may be necessary for temporary pain relief. Or, surgery may be presented as an option if the sciatica pain hasn’t subsided after three months.
In surgery, the herniated disc, bone fragment or other material pressing against the nerve will be removed to relieve the pressure. Then the patient will typically feel relief following the expected recovery time from the procedure.
If you need more advanced help with your sciatica, or a diagnosis, it’s time to reach out to a pain specialist. They’ll be able to provide the help you need to reduce pain and get back to your life. To find a pain specialist near you, click the button below.