Approximately 2 out of 5 people experience sciatica at some point in their lives. Sciatica pain typically starts in the lower back and radiates down through the hips, glutes, and legs. It may be constant or might come and go, appear suddenly or get worse over time. Common symptoms include low back pain, leg numbness or tingling, and hip or glute discomfort.
Keep reading to learn more about sciatica, including common causes and 7 sciatica exercises to do at home.
What is Sciatica?
Sciatica is pain related to the sciatica nerve which runs from the lumbar spine through the hip and ends just below the knee. The sciatic nerve is a set of five nerve roots about the width of a finger. Two parts of the nerve attach to the lumbar spine and three connect to the sacrum.
When it gets compressed, it causes nerve pain that ranges from a mild ache to excruciating sharp pain. It usually appears on one side of the body. Although the pain may be intense or severe, most sciatica cases resolve without surgery.
Sciatica symptoms can also include numbness, tingling, pins-and-needles, weakness, and pain anywhere along the path of the sciatic nerve from the low back into the calf or foot. Typically, it gets worse when you sit or stand for a long time, and with sudden movements like a cough or sneeze.
What Causes Sciatica?
A pinched sciatic nerve can be caused by age-related changes such as a herniated disk in your spine or a bone spur on one of the lumbar vertebrae. Certain diseases, like diabetes or cancer, can also damage or interfere with the sciatic nerve. For example, diabetes affects blood sugar which might result in nerve damage.
Your job might also play a role in causing sciatica. Common work conditions like sitting or driving for long periods, carrying heavy loads, or twisting through the spine are known aggravators of the sciatic nerve.
Obesity increases stress on the spine and lengthens your recovery time from sciatic pain. Certain studies even show that every pound you gain adds four pounds of pressure to the spine and lower body joints. People who are overweight are more likely to have chronic sciatic nerve pain.
No matter what caused your sciatica pain, this painful condition can be debilitating if you do not know how to find nerve pain relief.
7 Sciatica Exercises To Do At Home
Sciatica treatment depends on a multitude of factors including current pain levels and abilities. Consult your doctor before adding any exercises to your treatment plan. These seven sciatica exercises focus on creating muscle strength and flexibility in the low back, glutes, pelvis, piriformis, hamstrings, and core- all of which contribute to lower body stability and strength.
Exercise 1: Dead Bugs
One of the biggest risk factors for sciatica is a lack of core strength. Building strength in the abdominals supports the low back to prevent compression, pinching, inflammation, and irritation of the nerves in the spine.
The abdominals, and specifically the deepest layer of the abs called the transversus abdominis, keep us standing upright and provide stability. One study showed that people with low back pain had significantly less discomfort after strengthening the transverse abdominals.
This exercise works the transverse abdominals to build strength and increase flexibility in the core.
- Start laying on your back with your knees at 90 degrees and shins parallel to the ground.
- Keep your knees over your hips and raise your arms overhead.
- Tap the right toes to the ground keeping the knee bent while the left leg stays in place. At the same time, raise the left arm overhead.
- Bring both the knee and the arm back to the starting position.
- Repeat with the left toes and right arm.
- Keep going, alternating sides, for 30 to 60 seconds.
Practice good form and prevent injury by keeping the low back on the floor and maintaining engagement in the core.
Exercise 2: Pyramid Pose
The hamstrings attach to the sits bones, right below the buttocks. When tight, they cause or mimic the signs and symptoms of sciatica. Stretching the hamstrings relieves pressure on the sciatic nerve root to improve low back pain.
Tight hamstrings also contribute to unhealthy posture which, over time, strains the low back and causes imbalances across the body. By loosening the hamstrings, you relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve and improve your posture.
This exercise engages and stretches the hamstrings to improve posture and relieve low back strain.
- Start with the right leg two to three feet in front of the left, toes facing forward.
- Keep the hips in line. You may need to lightly engage the glutes to do so. Arrange your shoulders so they are directly over the hips.
- With arms outstretched or hands on your hips, bend forward over the right leg. Only go as far as you can without feeling any pain or strain.
- Return to standing and repeat, maintaining engagement in the hamstrings the whole time.
- Switch sides and repeat the exercise with the left foot in front.
- For the best results, do three sets of 10 repetitions on each side.
Practice good form and prevent injury by pressing the hips toward the back of the room and keeping engagement in the core to protect the low back.
Exercise 3: Figure Four In-And-Outs
Weak glutes are typically the result of a sedentary lifestyle. Imbalances in the glutes cause inefficient lower body movement which can eventually lead to sciatica, plantar fasciitis, and knee pain. Strengthening the glute medius improves balance and takes the pressure off of the low back, hamstrings, and hips, which work to support the body’s movement.
This figure four stretch lengthens and strengthens the outside of your hips, abductors, glutes, and glute medius.
- Start on your back with your feet on the ground, knees bent.
- Cross your right ankle over the left knee, and bring the left knee in so that it lines up over the hip with your hands behind your left knee.
- At this point, you might already feel a stretch in the glutes and abductors on the outside of the thigh. Feel free to stay here, pressing the outside of the ankle into the knee while you gently pull the knee into the chest. The muscles that were stretching should now be lightly engaged.
- If you have more flexibility, pull the knee in and out while maintaining the resistance of the ankle into the knee. Repeat the motion in and out, then switch sides.
- For best results, do three sets of 10 repetitions on each side.
Practice good form and prevent injury by keeping the hips and shoulder blades on the ground as you move the leg in and out.
Exercise 4: Standing Piriformis Stretch
The standing piriformis stretch loosens tight glutes, which can pull on the low back and cause imbalances to the hamstrings.
The piriformis is a narrow muscle that runs through the buttocks. A tight piriformis might spasm, causing pain that is often confused with sciatica. However, the piriformis can also irritate the sciatic nerve resulting in a similar pain pattern.
The standing piriformis stretch engages the glute medius and abductors.
- Start standing up.
- Bend your right knee into the chest then place the outside of your right ankle just above the left knee.
- You may want to hold onto a wall or table for extra support or you can place your hands on your hips.
- Press the hips back like you are sitting back in a chair until you feel a stretch on the outer thigh.
- If you feel a pulling near the hip or knee, pull out of the stretch slightly until the tension is primarily in the muscle.
- Hold for 10 seconds then return to standing. Repeat 3 to 6 times for a total of 30 or 60 seconds.
- Repeat three sets on each side.
Practice good form and prevent injury by engaging the core and untucking the tailbone so the hips press back. This takes the pressure off the low back.
Exercise 5: Seated Spinal Twist
Twists are useful low back exercises because they lengthen and loosen the muscles along the spine. They also alleviate pressure on the hip joint and sciatic nerve. If you are currently experiencing sciatica, twisting may exacerbate your pain, so always consult with your doctor or physical therapist before you add any new moves. Move slowly into the twist and stop as soon as you feel a gentle stretch.
This seated spinal twist eases low back pain to create space in the pelvis and hips.
- Start seated with the legs out in front, pelvis tipped slightly forward, shoulders lined up over the hips.
- Bend the right knee into the chest and place the right foot over the left leg by the knee.
- Wrap the left arm around the right knee and place the right hand behind you for balance and leverage.
- On the inhale, lift through the chest and allow yourself to sink deeper into the twist on the exhale.
- Hold the pose for 30 to 60 seconds, then switch sides
- Repeat three sets on each side
Practice good form and prevent injury by engaging the abs as you twist. Pull up out of the hips and allow most of the twist to happen in the upper spine to protect the low back. If you have tight hamstrings, you can sit on a folded towel to help tip the pelvis forward as you sit on the floor.
Exercise 6: Butterfly Presses
People are spending increasing amounts of time sitting, both at work and at home. The average adult spends about 6.5 hours seated each day. Sitting creates tight muscle patterns in the body; it tightens your hip flexors, hamstrings, quads, pecs, and upper traps. Meanwhile, the back stretches too much.
Over time, these muscle patterns become a habit, causing tightness, stiffness, and pain. Tight hips cause imbalances in the hamstrings, quads, and low back.
These butterfly presses strengthen and stretch the hip flexors to increase mobility through the pelvis.
- Start seated in a butterfly position. Sit up tall with the pelvis tipped slightly forward, bottoms of the feet pressing together, knees out to the sides.
- Grab your feet with your hands and maintain resistance between the elbows and knees by pressing the elbows into the knees and knees into the elbows.
- If you already feel a stretch, stay in this position, keeping the resistance between the knees and elbows.
- If you have more mobility in your hip flexors, begin to press the knees down toward the floor with the elbows. When you reach the edge of your range of motion and can no longer press the knees into the elbows, stop and reverse the movement by bringing the knees back together.
- Repeat for three sets of 10 repetitions.
Practice good form and prevent injury by sitting up tall and putting a towel underneath the sit bones to tip the pelvis slightly forward. Allow the pulses with the knees to be dictated by the strength of the inner quad muscles instead of the strength of your arms. Do not continue the pulses if you feel any pain in the joints or muscles.
Exercise 7: Frog Pose (Advanced)
The frog pose in its advanced form engages the adductors and hip flexors. The adductors run up the inside of the leg and connect to the hip flexors. Weak or tight adductors cause hip instability which can lead to or exacerbate pressure on the sciatic nerve.
The frog pose strengthens the adductors, stabilizing the low back and hips.
- Start on hands and knees with the knees slightly wider than the hips
- Press the knees into the floor and inward. If your hips are tight and the muscles are engaged, stay here and hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
- If you have more mobility in the hips, begin to rock forward and backward. First, bring the hips in front of the knees. Then, reverse the movement until they are closer to the ankles.
- Repeat this movement 10 times slowly as you maintain the resistance, pressing the knees into the floor.
- Do three sets of 10 exercises, resting between sets.
Practice good form and prevent injury by pressing the hips back and untucking the tailbone to protect the lower back.
Build Strength and Flexibility to Prevent Sciatica
Exercising without stretching increases your risk of injury, including a pinched sciatic nerve. And stretching without strength training may cause muscle strains and sprains. A holistic approach that exercises all of the muscles surrounding the sciatic nerve- including the hamstrings, hips, glutes, adductors, abductors, and quads- is the best approach to reducing sciatic nerve pain.
Talk to your doctor if your sciatica is preventing you from everyday activities and before adding any new exercises to your existing treatment plan.