July 19, 2021 10 min read

Anyone who has ever had sciatica before understands how debilitatingly painful it can be.  Burning and shooting pains down the entire length of the legs doesn't even begin to describe it. 

Thankfully, sciatica is treatable with specific exercises that attack the root causes of the issue.  Even better, you don’t need to go to physical therapy to do them!

Here is everything you need to know about sciatica, including our top five exercises to relieve sciatica pain!

piriformis syndrome 3d medical vector illustration on white background

What is The Sciatic Nerve?

The Sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the human body.  It originates in the lumbar spine, splits in two, then passes through the glutes and down the entire length of the legs.  It ends in the soles of the feet.

The role of the sciatic nerve is to carry information back and forth between the spinal cord and lower body.  This information leads to motor and sensory input and output in the lower body.

Moreover, without a healthy sciatic nerve, it would be challenging to:

  • Move your feet or toes
  • Flex your knee
  • Abduct your hips
  • Have any feeling in your lower body

Therefore, the sciatic nerve is not only large, but it is crucial to keep healthy.  Unfortunately, though, the sciatic nerve commonly falls victim to debilitating sciatica nerve pain.

What is Sciatica?

Sciatica is pain that radiates down the length of the sciatic nerve. Sometimes, the pain isolates to a specific part of the nerve. Or, in worse cases, it is felt down the entire length of the nerve.

Also, it can be felt down just one or both halves of the nerve. In addition to generalized pain down one or both of the legs, other common sciatica symptoms include:

  • Shooting or burning lower body pain
  • Mild to extreme low back pain
  • Upper or lower leg pain
  • Neck pain
  • Weakness in the hands, arms, feet, and legs
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands, arms, feet, and legs

Sciatic nerve pain comes from:

  • Excess compression on the sciatic nerve
  • Inflammation of the sciatic nerve
  • Pinching of the sciatic nerve

Any one of these can lead to sciatica. But, what causes these sciatic nerve issues in the first place?

What Causes Sciatica?

Several different things can cause the sciatic nerve to compress, inflame, or pinch and lead to sciatic nerve pain. And, many of them are preventable by simply leading a healthy lifestyle, improving posture, and using good form when lifting heavy weights.Here are the most common causes of sciatica:

1. Herniated Disc (Slipped Disc)

In between each of your vertebrae are small, rubber-like cushions. The cushions are your disks, and they help absorb spinal shock, improve spinal mobility, and hold the vertebrae together.Sometimes, the outer wall of a disk tears.

When this happens, the inner jellylike section of the disk bulges (herniates) towards the outside of the disk. This results in irritation of one or more of the nerves running up and down the spine. In the case of sciatica, a herniated disk in the lower back irritates the sciatic nerve. There are several causes of herniated disks, including:

  • Traumatic spinal injuries
  • Poor lifting posture 
  • Age-related disk degeneration

By far, the most common cause of a herniated disk is aging. After many years of living, the disks naturally wear down. Therefore, many seniors experience herniated disks and resultantly experience sciatic nerve pain.

However, younger people are not immune from developing herniated disks. The most common cause of a herniated disk in young people is lifting-related injuries. For example, poor lifting form can cause extreme wear and tear on the disks in the lower back. Therefore, you must practice good form when lifting heavy. Otherwise, you could develop a herniated diskandsciatica as a result.

2. Osteoarthritis

Like herniated disks, the odds of developing osteoarthritis increase with age. In fact, osteoarthritis is the number one cause of back pain in people over age 50.  Osteoarthritis is a form of arthritis that affects the lower back. It happens when the joints in the lower back get injured, irritated, or inflamed.  It then leads to back pain and can be a precursor to even worse sciatic nerve pain.

While osteoarthritis highly correlates with aging, it is preventable. Leading a healthy lifestyle that involves regular exercise, healthy eating, and stretching, prevents lower back joint injuries, irritation, and inflammation. Therefore, by leading a healthy lifestyle, you can prevent both osteoarthritis and sciatica caused by osteoarthritis.

3. Diabetes

Similar to arthritis, leading a healthy lifestyle helps you prevent diabetes. And, diabetes is another common cause of sciatica.Diabetes is a disease that affects the way that the body processes and utilizes blood sugar. Poor blood sugar management can lead to major spikes in your blood sugar. These high spikes can cause a specific type of nerve damage called neuropathy.

Sometimes, the nerve damage can affect the sciatic nerve and result in sciatica pain. Sciatica pain caused by neuropathy can be extremely dangerous and even disabling. Therefore, taking care of yourself to prevent diabetes is crucial. To prevent diabetes, maintain a healthy weight by eating healthy whole foods and getting regular exercise.

4. Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the spaces in your spine. With less space, the nerves laced throughout the spine come under excess pressure.Spinal stenosis is commonly associated with osteoarthritis, but it also can occur on its own. 

When it does occur on its own, lower back injuries related to lifting heavy weights or serious accidents usually cause it.Therefore, once again, we cannot emphasize enough the importance of practicing good form when lifting. While it might not seem like that much of a big deal, the consequences of poor form can amount to serious injuries over time.

5. Lifestyle Factors

Almost all of the above sciatica causes stem back to poor lifestyle choices, including leading an unhealthy lifestyle, poor posture, and poor lifting form. However, some lifestyle choices candirectly cause sciatica, including:

  • Sitting for too many hours at a time
  • Having poor back posture (outside and inside of the gym)
  • Obesity

First off, sitting for too many hours at a time can compress your lumbar spine. With your spine crushed, that leaves little room for the sciatic nerve.  As a result, the nerve comes under extreme pressure and radiates pain throughout the lower body. 

Therefore, make it a point to stand up and walk around at least once every hour.  It will help take some of the pressure off of your lumbar spine.Second, having poor back posture can degrade the lower spine. If you are constantly slouching or lifting too heavy of objects without standing up straight, the lower spine can take a hit. 

When the lower spine has problems, it can irritate or pinch the sciatic nerve.  Make it a habit to start standing up straighter and using a lifting belt to help take pressure off of your back.

Lastly, carrying extra weight around can compress your spine, especially if that weight is in your core region. Maintaining a healthy weight will also help improve your posture.  With less compression and better posture, your sciatic nerve will have more space to flourish.

 man on cobra pose on ground during stretching yoga exercise

Best Exercises for Sciatica Pain Relief

The best way to relieve sciatica is to do exercises that ease sciatica pain.Most of these sciatica exercises are stretches that help loosen up a tight lumbar spine and legs.  With a looser spine and legs, your sciatic nerve is less prone to irritation, inflammation, and pinching.

If your pain is unbearable, we recommend seeking medical advice from a physical therapist. They will give you a more prescribed sciatica treatment.Otherwise, add these sciatica stretches and exercises to your exercise program.  Start relieving your sciatica pain today!

1. Hamstring Stretch

If your sciatica pain radiates down the back of your legs, then give the hamstring stretch a try. Having tight hamstrings is one way to cause sciatica. When the hamstrings are tight, there is increased stress on the lower back. Loosen up the hamstrings to take pressure off the sciatica nerve root in the lower back.

Lay flat on your back on a soft surface. Try to create one long like from the crown of your head to your feet. When you're ready, lift your right leg straight off the floor and pull it towards your chest with both hands. If you cannot reach your leg, then wrap a resistance band around the calf and pull it towards you.

If you are more flexible, then try to grab your right ankle. Feel the stretch in the back of your leg, then slowly release it down to the floor. Repeat with the left leg!Try to keep your leg almost completely straight as you pull it towards your chest.

Hyperextending could cause injury, and overly bending will minimize the impact on your hamstring. Therefore, try to have only a slight bend in the leg for maximum impact.

2. Pelvic Tilt

Pelvic tilts lift and strengthen the abdominal muscles. Having stronger abs has several benefits for sciatica pain, including:

  • Increasing space in the spine
  • Improving lower back posture (takes away lower back pain)
  • Increasing range of motion of the spine

Start laying flat on the floor with a neutral spine and arms by your sides. Pull your feet in towards your glutes, so your knees bend to 90-degrees.  Keep your feet flat on the floor.

As you lay in the starting position, there should be a tiny natural curve in your lower spine.  You will know it is there if there is a small gap between your back and the floor, about the size of a grape.  Even though you are technically in a neutral spine, this curve should still be there.

To do a pelvic tilt, imagine as if you are trying to press that part of your lower back that is not touching the ground into the floor.  Or, imagine as if you are trying to squish a tiny grape placed underneath your lower spine. Press your lower spine into the floor for a second, and then release back to neutral.  Repeat a couple more times.

3. Piriformis Stretch

The piriformis muscle is a gluteal muscle that intertwines with the sciatic nerve. If the piriformis is tight, it can irritate the sciatic nerve. You can reduce the tightness and pain with this simple stretch.

Lay flat on your back with a neutral spine and arms by your sides. Pull your feet in towards your glutes, so your knees bend to 90-degrees. Cross your right ankle over your left knee.

Then, grab your right ankle and pull the leg towards your chest. Maintain the crossed position of the leg. You should feel a deep stretch in your glutes.Release your right ankle and repeat on the opposite side. 

4. Yoga Poses

Yoga is one of the best workouts for improving overall wellness. And, several different yoga poses help relieve sciatica pain. Here are some of the best ones:

  • Downward-facing dog
  • Cobra pose
  • Pigeon pose
  • Shoulder (glute) bridges
  • Child's pose

Downward dog is perhaps the best pose if you have pain radiating down the length of your leg(s). Here's how to do it properly:

Get on your hands and knees on a soft surface. Take a deep breath, then press into your hands and toes to lift your hips into the air. Your body should form an inverted V-position.

Hold the pose and take a few deep breaths to allow oxygen to flow to your spine. You should feel most of the stretch in the backs of your legs. When you are ready, lower your hips and drop back to all fours.

5. Knee to Opposite Shoulder

Last but not least, the knee to opposite shoulder stretch relieves sciatica pain concentrated in the glutes and lower back.Lay flat on your back with your legs extended straight, arms by your sides, and spine neutral.

Pull your right knee towards your chest by grabbing the back of the leg with both hands. Exhale and pull the right knee across your body to the left shoulder. Only pull it as far as it can go without lifting the lower back and glutes off the floor.

Hold the pull, then slowly release the right leg to straight. Repeat on the opposite side. Remember, to make the stretch effective, your hips and back must remain glued to the floor the whole time!

Additional Ways to Relieve Sciatica Pain

The above exercises are ideal for relieving sciatica pain because they tackle the root cause of the pain. In addition to these exercises, you can also make some lifestyle changes to relieve the pain even more!

Because sciatica is most commonly caused by medical conditions attributed to an unhealthy lifestyle, you can relieve it by simply opting for a more healthy lifestyle that includes these tips.

Here is what you should do:

  1. Spend more time standing: One of the best and easiest ways to relieve sciatic nerve pain is to spend as much time as you can standing rather than sitting. Sitting crunches your lumbar spine. That crunch makes your sciatic nerve more vulnerable to irritation.Therefore, you can relieve existing sciatic pain or prevent it all together just by opting to stand. Things like a standing desk or table are excellent investments in your health!
  1. Develop better posture: Your spine is designed to be long and stretched out. However, hunching the back contracts the spine and pinches the sciatic nerve.Make it a point to remind yourself to stand up straighter. Write it down on a piece of paper, on your mirror, or in your calendar. Over time, better posture will elongate your spine and reduce any pinching of your sciatic nerve.
  1. Focus on form: We have said it before and we will say it again... form is everything! When lifting heavy weights, poor form can mean death to your spine. Spinal injuries significantly increase the odds of developing sciatic nerve pain.If you need to, reduce the amount of weight you lift to focus more on your form. Once you get the form down, you can start upping your max load. If you don't, you could end up with debilitating pain and out of the gym entirely!

Final Thoughts

The best way to relieve sciatica pain is to correct the root cause of it. And, our top 5 exercises do just that!Along with making healthy lifestyle changes, you can correct sciatica on your own. Say goodbye to those debilitating nerve pains for good!

Bonus tip: Having a healthy weight is one of the best ways to keep sciatica at bay! Understanding macros can put you on track to attaining a healthy weight. Here is our complete guide to understanding macros!  


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