The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body. For this reason, there are many opportunities along its path for it to become “pinched.”
Luckily, with a few simple exercises, most cases of sciatica can be effectively managed.
What Is Sciatica Pain? Causes and Symptoms
Sciatica is a term that refers to anything causing the sciatic nerve to be irritated (1).
Due to the sciatic nerve’s position, it is susceptible to being irritated at multiple locations and by multiple causes.
Causes of Sciatica
Starting in the spine, various nerve roots come together to form the sciatic nerve.
From there, the nerve travels down the back of the leg, branching many times throughout its course. With such a long, important nerve, it’s easy to see how it is very vulnerable to injury and irritation!
Irritation of the sciatic nerve can occur due to:
- Tight muscles,
- Herniated discs and bone spurs,
- Some medications,
- Tumors in the spine,
- Even just for no readily apparent reason.
The rarer causes of sciatica pain (such as medication-related causes) are interesting to discuss. However, the focus of this article will be on sciatica caused by tight muscles and other musculoskeletal issues.
Symptoms of Sciatica
Symptoms of sciatica nerve impingement can vary. In most cases, patients will report one or more of the following:
- Pain in the back and/or leg,
- Tingling in the leg and/or foot,
- Weakness (classic dragging of foot or “steppage” gait pattern).
When clinicians examine a patient with sciatic nerve pain, they may notice abnormal reflexes. Additionally, the patient’s history and other tests will further narrow down the list of possible conditions.
Types of Sciatic Nerve Pain
The cluster of different conditions that all fall under the “sciatica” umbrella can cause slightly different symptoms.
For instance, sciatica can be classified by how long the patient has been suffering. Cases of sciatica that have lasted only a few short weeks are known as acute sciatica (2). Sciatica cases that last for months or longer are referred to as chronic sciatica.
Further classification of sciatica can describe:
- Whether the symptoms occur on one or both sides,
- Which specific parts of the leg or back are affected,
- How severe the symptoms are.
For our purposes, we will focus on mild cases of sciatica which can be relieved through exercise.
How to Relieve Sciatica Pain
There are tons of different treatment methods that all have varying levels of efficacy in treating sciatica. Physical therapy, certain medications, acupuncture, and other treatments can all help.
However, one of the best ways to address sciatica symptoms is through exercise. In the following section, I will outline 3 of the simplest, best exercises that can help relieve most cases of sciatica.
Disclaimer: Those suffering from more severe symptoms should consult with a qualified medical professional to determine what may be causing their condition. Nothing found on the internet is a substitute for a clinical examination by a doctor.
3 Sciatica Exercises to Loosen Pinched Nerves and Relieve Pain
For one of the following exercises, you will need a small ball such as a lacrosse or tennis ball. Beyond that, as long as you have floor space in which you can spread out, you’ll be able to perform these easily!
Each exercise should be performed for 30 seconds, and each stretch should be performed 4 times on each leg (if applicable). You should have a feeling of “moderate discomfort” during the exercises.
If you feel intense pain, ease off on the pressure. If it’s too easy, apply some more pressure. These exercises are designed to loosen up some of the areas which are most often responsible for “pinching” the sciatic nerve.
Ready? Here we go!
1. Basic Supine Piriformis Stretch
This exercise is an introductory piriformis stretch that is well-tolerated by most people. It is easy to perform and requires no equipment.
- To perform this stretch, start by lying on your back, with your knees bent, and feet flat on the floor.
- Lift your painful leg up and cross it over your other leg, so that the ankle of your painful leg is right above the knee of your uninvolved leg.
- Allow your painful leg to relax until you feel a slight stretch in your hip and buttocks. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times on both sides.
2. Advanced Piriformis Stretch
The advanced version of the piriformis stretch takes the previous stretch one step further. If you didn’t feel much of a stretch on the last one, you definitely will on this one!
- Starting in the same position as the previous exercise, you’ll now grasp the underside of your uninvolved thigh (your hands will be on your hamstring).
- Next, gently pull your knee toward your chest, bringing the ankle of the involved leg with it. You may feel an intense buttock stretch on the involved leg during this stretch.
- Remember: aim for “moderate discomfort.” Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times.
3. Lacrosse Ball Piriformis Release
If you bruise easily or have any doubts about performing this exercise, be sure to talk to a medical professional before you try it. This exercise is like a deep, sports massage for your piriformis!
- Lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, lift up your painful buttock and place a lacrosse ball underneath. Gently lie back down so that your buttocks rest on top of the ball.
- Next, use your legs to slowly push yourself in a small circle around the ball, performing a mini, circular massage.
- Continue to perform this circular massage motion for 30 seconds, repeating 4 times.
Sciatica nerve pain is a tough condition to deal with. It can cause weakness, pain, and general discomfort for long periods of time. But in many cases, some simple exercises can help you get past this ailment and move on with your life.
Just remember, if you have questions, never hesitate to contact your doctor and/or physical therapist!
- Davis D, Maini K, Vasudevan A. Sciatica. [Updated 2021 Sep 2]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507908/
- Koes, B. W., van Tulder, M. W., & Peul, W. C. (2007). Diagnosis and treatment of sciatica. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 334(7607), 1313–1317. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39223.428495.BE