The sciatic nerve extends from both sides of the lower spine down through the buttocks and pelvic area. When this nerve becomes irritated, the resulting condition is called sciatica and typically involves shooting pains as well as periodic numbness and tingling in the legs. An estimated 2 in 5 people will suffer sciatica at some point in life, and anti-inflammatory painkillers can offer some relief. However, so can exercises, and (unlike drugs) don’t come with side effects. Here are eight of the best exercises that relieve sciatic nerve pain.
Lie face down on your stomach on a comfortable surface, stretching your arms and legs out. Lift your right arm at the same time as your left leg, and hold them in this position for five seconds before lowering them back down to the ground. Next, do the exercise using your left arm and right leg. Ideally, this exercise should be repeated five times on each side, and you should aim to do this series of repetitions at least twice a day.
2. Knee to chest stretch
This fantastic exercises boosts mobility and enhances flexibility in the lower back. Simply lie down on a soft or padded surface, and support your head with a flat cushion. Keep your feet on the floor (hip-width apart) with your knees bent, and tuck your chin into your chest. Next, slowly bend your right knee up towards your abs, holding onto the knee with both of your hands. Steadily increase the stretch as much as you can, stopping if it becomes outright painful, and hold this position for 30 seconds. Return your right foot to rest flat on the floor, and repeat the exercise with your left leg. Repeat this exercise at least three times on each side of the body.
3. Gluteal stretch
Focusing on the buttocks, this exercise begins with you lying on your back and your head resting on a flat pillow. Bend your right leg, then bring your left leg across to rest on your right thigh. Once in this position, hold onto your right thigh with both hands and try to pull it towards you, stretching your right buttock. You can hold this stretch for up to 30 seconds, and it should be repeated three times for each buttock.
Be careful not to strain the neck area when doing this exercise! It’s smart to rest your arms behind your head throughout if you have a tendency to overextend your neck. Start by lying on your back with your knees bent, then gradually lift your head and shoulders up. Hold this stretch for 3-5 seconds, and then gently lower your upper body back down to the ground. Most people can only repeat this exercise 8-10 times at first, but with practice you may be able to do it up to 30 times in each session.
5. Hamstring stretch
Find a slightly elevated surface (like a step or bench), and rest one heel on that surface. You may want to choose the leg that most frequently experiences nerve pain or tingling sensations. Rest your hands on your thigh, and keep your knee straight. Finally, lean forward (starting at the hips) so that you feel the stretch down the back of your thigh. Repeat with the other leg if you experience sciatic pain in both legs.
6. Back extension
You start this exercise lying face down on your stomach, resting your weight on your elbows and forearms. Keeping your shoulders back throughout, arch your back up and press down with your hands. You’ll know you’re doing a back extension correctly if there is a slight ache and stretching sensation in your lower stomach muscles. Hold this stretch for up to 10 seconds (stopping if it becomes painful), and then return to the starting position. Repeat up to 10 times per session.
7. Leg raises
Lying on your back on a comfortable surface, put your hands behind your head to support your neck. Engage your abdominal muscles (by tightening them and pulling them in), then lift your right leg up off the ground. Even just a couple of inches will lead to a beneficial stretch that may help sciatic nerve pain. Try to hold your leg in this elevated position for up to 5 seconds, then lower it down to the ground before repeating the exercise with your left leg.
8. Low-impact cardiovascular exercise
Finally, it’s important to not only engage in specific exercises that target sciatic nerve pain but also to commit to regular cardiovascular exercise. You may find that swimming is particularly good, as it tones your muscles and enhances flexibility while relieving your body of its usual weight-bearing burden. In addition, any form of aerobic exercise that gets the heart pumping also prompts your body to release a flood of endorphins—those “feel good” chemicals that boost mood and have natural painkilling properties that can reduce sciatic nerve pain.