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Sciatica Exercises to Avoid: Do This, Not That

By Jesse Cannone, CFT, CPRS, MFT

Women doing yoga The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest single nerve in your body, running from your lower spine down each leg and ending in each foot.

Sciatica refers to the pain, numbness and other symptoms caused by compression or inflammation of this important nerve.

Sciatica exercises are designed to specifically target the areas surrounding the sciatic nerve, to both stretch and strengthen key muscles affecting your pain.

Certain exercises will not only reduce your pain quickly, they may prevent the need for drastic measures like surgery in the future. However, some common back and leg exercises may exacerbate your pain.

Here are three sciatica exercises to avoid, followed by the top five most effective stretches to relieve your sciatica pain.

3 Sciatica exercises to avoid When sciatica pain is at its worst these stretches may seem like common sense, instinctual exercises to do… but they can actually make your pain worse.

  • Downward-facing dog
    This popular “fix all, relax all” yoga pose may feel good after a long vinyasa, but not if your sciatica is currently acting up. Downward-Facing Dog not only stretches the hamstrings, but your calves and tendons down to your heel. Downward-Facing Dog and yoga are recommended for maintaining your condition, but only after acute sciatic pain has subsided.
  • Hamstring stretch
    Whether you’re standing and leaning forward, in a runner’s stretch, or leaning over both feet, this one stretch can aggravate the entire length of your sciatic nerve, from the lower back to the heel.
  • Leg circles
    A common exercise in Pilates and martial arts, swinging your leg in a full circle will stretch the hamstring suddenly, possibly causing severe pain down your sciatic nerve. Besides these three, as a general rule you should avoid high impact, jarring exercises or sports until you have corrected the condition causing your sciatica pain.

5 Best Sciatica Stretches

These simple but effective sciatica stretches are indicated for relaxing the lower back, pelvic floor, buttocks and legs. They also work to help you strengthen these key areas for reducing or preventing sciatica pain by allowing the spine to return to its natural, functional alignment.

For best results, repeat these several times a day until your pain subsides.

Before you begin, lay flat on your back with your arms at your sides and legs outstretched. Allow your body to relax and clear your mind in preparation for these pain-relieving stretches.

Remember: listen to your body. If anything hurts, stop or reduce the intensity immediately.

The Complete Back Stretch

While you’re lying on your back, perform this stretch. It will relax your entire back and is very effective at alleviating sciatica pain.

How to Do It:

  • Bring both your knees to your chest
  • Wrap your arms around your legs, at the knees, and relax your lower back
  • Do not try to “crack” your spine–this is purely for relaxing your back

Lower Back Stretch

This exercise stretches and relaxes your lower and middle back specifically. Remember to be gentle while stretching your back.

How to Do It:

  • From your flat back position, bend one knee to a 90 degree angle while keeping your foot on the floor
  • Allow your knee to “fall” gently to the opposite side of your body, letting your hips twist
  • Rest your foot on the floor for support and try to keep your back and hips flat on the floor
  • Repeat on both sides for 10-20 seconds

Pretzel Stretch

This stretch is excellent for releasing tension in your buttocks and pelvic floor.

How to Do It:

  • From your flat back, bend both knees while keeping your feet on the floor
  • Bring the right ankle atop the left knee
  • Pull your left thigh back toward your body slowly

Single Leg Stretch & Lift

A common exercise in Pilates practices, the single leg stretch and lift will strengthen your core and hip flexors while stretching the buttocks and hips.

How to Do It:

  • From your flat back, lift one leg to a 90-degree angle, supporting your thigh with both hands
  • Keep your foot parallel with the floor
  • Then, lift your other leg a few inches off the ground, your foot at 90 degrees
  • Repeat the lift 12 to 15 times, then switch

Modified Quadricep Stretch

This stretch is great for relaxing your hips and quads.

How to Do It:

  • Flip gently over to your stomach and lay flat.
  • Lift one leg up behind you, bend your knee, and grip your foot or ankle with the hand on the same side (i.e. right foot, right hand)
  • Pull your foot as close to your body as possible, but don’t pull too hard. Go for a relaxing stretch, not an intense burn.

The stretches and exercises recommended above should help relieve much of your sciatica pain.

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Copyright © 2024 All material herein is provided for information only and may not be construed as personal medical advice. No action should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being. The publisher is not a licensed medical care provider. The information is provided with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in the practice of medicine or any health-care profession and does not enter into a health-care practitioner/patient relationship with its readers. The publisher is not responsible for errors or omissions.