15 best sciatica exercises for instant pain relief

Sciatica exercises can be a #blessing when it comes to easing the pesky (… understatement of the century) nerve pain. sure, ideally we’d put preventative measures in place to stop sciatica developing, but there are things you can do to help if it does — whether that’s with the NHS’ sciatica exercises, knowing which exercises to avoid if you’ve got sciatica, or the best sciatica exercises to do in bed. If you ended up with sciatica amid pregnancy, or as a result of a slapdash WFH setup, these exercises all apply.

We caught up with Catherine Quinn, President of the British Chiropractic Association, for everything you need to know.

What is sciatica?

‘Sciatica refers to the condition when the sciatic nerve, which runs from your lower back to your feet, is irritated or compressed,’ Quinn explains. ‘This can be due to a slipped disc and can cause a lot of discomfort.’

In a nutshell, there are discs in between each vertebrae, that are a bit like washers. If one starts to press into the sciatic nerve, when it moves from the position it’s meant to be in, which can happen when twisting or turning to lift an object, it can cause a whole world of ouch.

Sciatica symptoms

Quinn tells us the following could be signs of sciatica:

  • Moderate to severe pain in the lower back, which can extend to legs and feet
  • Pins and needles
  • tingling
  • number
  • weakness
  • Inability to flex the foot
  • Reduction in the knee-jerk reflex

    What causes sciatica?

    Sciatica isn’t picky — anyone can get it, though there are a few things that make it more likely.

    ‘It is suggested that pregnant women can be more susceptible to sciatica due to changing pressures on the spine and pelvis,’ says Quinn.

    In fact, 50-80% of women suffer from sciatica-like symptoms and back pain during pregnancy, especially in the third trimester — and the usual suspects can be to blame: weight gain, fluid retention, the growing uterus, the shifted center or gravity, even the baby’s head — and, less often, a slipped disc.

    ‘Individuals with very high BMI (Body Mass Index) are also more likely to suffer from the condition, especially between the ages of 35 and 50,’ says Quinn.

    Weight makes a difference as it increases the pressure in the lower back and pelvis, especially if it’s carried around the stomach. It figures.

    That poor posture we’re getting used to when walking around and sitting at a desk, particularly when WFH and using laptops, can stress the vertebrae in your lower back as well. And you guessed it: hello, higher risk of sciatica.

    It’s all about making sure we support the spine and, if it comes to it, incorporating sciatica exercises.

    What are the best exercises for sciatica?

    ‘There are many preventative measures which can be taken into consideration, such as leading a healthy lifestyle, take regular breaks from staying seated, sleeping on a firm mattress, maintaining good posture — including at your work space, and regular exercise,’ explains Quinn .

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    ‘But, if these preventative measures fail, there are a number of exercises that can be done to ease symptoms, such as using a foam roller to massage the glute area and a variety of yoga poses aimed at opening the hip flexor, and stretching the outer hamstring, lower back and glute. Remember there’s not one solution that fits all and you need to find the best solution for your body.’

    As well as returning to work, activity and gentle rhythmic movement, like swimming, cycling and gentle walking, as soon as possible, there are some specific sciatica exercises you can do in bed or lying down on the floor. Respect the pain, go gently and stop if you experience any discomfort.

    The best NHS-recommended sciatica exercises

    The NHS advises sciatica exercises specific to the cause (which you’ll need to get firmed up by your GP, first and foremost). Once you’ve got that nailed down, here’s what you need to do.

    If your sciatica is caused by piriformis, a tiny muscle in your butt, these are the sciatica exercises to try and stretch it out:

    This content is imported from YouTube. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

    Exercise 1

    • Cross your legs and draw them up towards the chest.
    • Activate your abdominals and hold for 10 seconds.
    • Repeat three times.

      Exercise 2

      • Bring your knees up towards your chest and move them across to the opposite shoulder of the problem side.
      • Move your knees from side to side to mobilize and free up the piriformis, while engaging the abdominal muscles.

            If your sciatica is caused by a herniated or slipped disk, which can cause pain locally or down the body, these are the sciatica exercises to try to give the area space:

            This content is imported from YouTube. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

            Exercise 1

            • Lie on your stomach with two pillows below the lower back to open it up and take pressure off.
            • Stay in this position for a few minutes.

              Exercise 2

              • Lie on your side, with the problem side up and a pillow between your knees.
              • Lie back and put a pillow or chair beneath the knees to soften the lower back.
              • Lying down, slowly tilt the pelvis.
              • With the lumbar arch in the lower back pressed down to the bed or floor, hold for five seconds.
              • Repeat 10 times.

                Exercise 3

                • Squeeze your buttocks as hard as you can for five seconds.
                • Repeat 10 times.

                  If your sciatica is caused by spinal stenosis, these are the sciatica exercises to create space between the joints, and to strengthen and stabilize the surrounding area so you can take pressure off the nerve:

                  This content is imported from YouTube. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

                  Exercise 1

                  • Lying on the floor or bed, bring your knees up to your chest.
                  • Draw them closer 10 times.

                    Exercise 2

                    • Bring both knees up to the chest and move them out to the side and back in, in circles.
                    • Repeat for 10 in each direction.

                      Exercise 3

                      • Sitting on a bed or in a chair, pull your knees up to your chest.
                      • Bounce them carefully up and down.

                        Exercise 4

                        • Lying down on the floor or a bed, ease the lumbar arch (the curve in your lower back) down.
                        • Repeat 10 times.

                          Exercise 5

                          • Pull your stomach muscles in, roll your knees from side to side.
                          • Repeat 10 times.

                            Exercise 6

                            • Squeeze your buttocks and draw the pelvic floor in.
                            • Hold for five seconds.
                            • Repeat three times.

                                  If your sciatica is caused by degenerative disc disease, these are the sciatica exercises to strengthen, mobilize and stabilize the surrounding area:

                                  This content is imported from YouTube. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

                                  Exercise 1

                                      • Lie with the ankles beneath the knees.
                                      • Squeeze the buttocks and lift the pelvis, coming up into bridge.

                                        Exercise 2

                                        • Lie on your back on the floor or bed, with your knees up to take slack off the lower back, engage the abdominals.
                                        • Lying down, slowly tilt the pelvis.
                                        • With the lumbar arch in the lower back pressed down to the bed or floor, hold for five seconds.
                                        • Repeat 10 times.

                                          Exercise 3

                                          • Lying on your back, activate the core and move knees from side to side.

                                            Exercise 4

                                            • Lying, sitting or standing, squeeze the pelvic floor.
                                            • Hold for five seconds.
                                            • Repeat five times.

                                                  Sciatica exercises to do in bed

                                                  Sciatica exercises to do in bed can be useful as they can be done in the morning or evening.

                                                  ‘A number of exercises can be done in bed, such as pulling knees to chest, posterior pelvic tilts and knee to opposite shoulder stretch,’ advises Quinn. Most of the NHS’ sciatica exercise recommendations can be done in bed, and the instructions above will help you figure out when it’s an option.

                                                  Exercises to avoid when suffering with sciatica

                                                  Though movement can benefit the nerve pain, there are some sciatica exercises to avoid.

                                                  ‘Avoid exercises that can cause more pain on the sciatic nerve,’ recommends Quinn.

                                                  These can include:

                                                  • Weighted squats
                                                  • Cycling
                                                  • High impact sports
                                                  • burpees
                                                  • Hurdler stretches

                                                    Above all, remember to go at your own pace. If at any point you feel any sharp pain, or the sciatica exercises you’re doing are making your condition worse (either during or after movement), always stop and consult a GP for further advice. Quinn’s words are certainly wise, but no health advice should ever be taken as gospel—you can thank your ever-evolving and slightly unpredictable bod for that.

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