IF YOU’RE DEALING with feelings of numbness or tingling running through the back of the leg, you just may be battling sciatica.
Sciatica is a general term for pain caused by an impingement along the sciatic nerve. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the sciatic nerve is the largest and longest nerve in the body, running all the way from the low back down the back of each leg, into each foot. Sciatica is incredibly common; up to 40 percent of adults will experience sciatic pain at some point during their lifespan, says Brett Warner, PT, DPT, C.S.C.S of Bespoke Treatments in New York City.
The good news is there are exercises that can provide some relief. The key is to incorporate two types of movements, Warner says. First, utilize mobilization exercises to release any compression that might be hindering impulses along the nerve. Second, stabilize by including exercises that will strengthen the muscles surrounding the nerve route. Here, Warner, along with Vaughn Gray, CPT, shares 4 exercises to do just that.
What Is Sciatica?
Sciatica is an “umbrella term” associated with pain that runs the route of the sciatic nerve, Warner says. The sciatic nerve is responsible for both muscle movement and sensory sensations of the legs. Sciatica is typically characterized by nerve pain like numbness, weakness, burning, or tingling somewhere along the low back, glutes, or back of the legs, Warner says.
What Causes Sciatica?
Sciatica happens when the sciatic nerve is inflamed, which is commonly caused by pressure placed somewhere along the nerve route. This can happen if you have to sustain awkward positions often, sit a lot, or lift a lot of heavy objects, says Warner.
Sciatica is a very broad, so if your symptoms are persisting and a disturbance to your everyday life, be sure to consult with a physician or physical therapist to obtain more individualized treatment.
4 Exercises to Relieve Sciatica Pain
Supine Sciatic Nerve Glide
The first two movements will help relieve any compression that might be causing sciatic nerve pain. “While you can’t exactly stretch nerve tissue, you can glide it along the soft tissue around it to relieve any kind of entrapment points,” Warner says.
How to Do It:
- Lay flat on the ground with both legs straight out. Pull one knee up to where there is a 90 degree bend in both the knee and the hip.
- Grab behind the knee, and extend it as far as you can. Point the toes towards the ceiling as you pull the neck in towards the chest.
- Then, pull the toes back towards your face as you relax the neck back towards the ground. That’s one rep.
- Repeat for 3 sets of 20 reps.
Like the first movement, pigeon pose will help relieve some places of tightness along the nerve route. The nerve lays right under the piriformis muscle in our backside. It’s easy for this muscle to become tight and compress the nerve—this stretch will relieve some of that tension. It’s especially good to incorporate if you have any type of vertebral disk abnormality, such as a bulging or herniated disk, Warner says.
How to Do It:
- Start on your hands and knees in a table top position.
- Lay one knee in and across in front of you, so that one knee is up by the same hand.
- Sink the hips down and back until you feel a stretch through the glute. Straighten out the back and keep the elbows extended.
- Repeat for 3 sets of 30 second holds.
Prone Isometric Back Extension
This movement will train your abdominals and extensor muscles to stabilize the spine and prevent it from flexing forward, Warner says.
How to Do It:
- Lie down on an elevated surface, like a bench or the edge of a bed.
- Extend the arms up and behind you, while maintaining a neutral position along the spine.
- Hold this position for as long as you can.
- Repeat for 5 sets, holding till failure.
Plank With Hip Extension
This movement will help better core stability. By adding in a hip extension, the glute medius and maximus will strengthen—both of which are susceptible to weakness when there’s dysfunction in the sciatic nerve.
How to Do It:
- Start in a forearm plank position, with the elbows stacked under the shoulders and spine neutral.
- Bend one knee up 90 degrees. Push that foot up towards the ceiling, squeezing the glute. Make sure the movement stays isolated to the hip, not moving the spine.
- Repeat for 3 sets of 15 reps.
For more advice from physical therapists to help you move and feel better, check out all of our guides in The Fix series.
Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men’s Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.