How to ease the symptoms of sciatica

Editor’s note: Join Dana Santas in a four-part series to learn how to recover from and prevent back pain. Known as the “Mobility Maker,” Santas is a board-certified professional sports strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach and author of the book Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief. Here is Part III.


Often associated with lower back pain, sciatica is more of a pain in the butt — and sometimes the leg as well. That’s because the pain travels along the sciatic nerves, the longest nerves in your body. Each sciatic nerve runs bilaterally from the base of your spine through the deep muscles of your buttocks and down the back of one leg.

In the previous two articles in this series, I helped you learn about the possible causes of your back pain and how you can start finding relief through exercise. Now we focus on helping people who specifically suffer from sciatica.

When a sciatic nerve is injured, compressed, or irritated, it causes significant discomfort, including shooting pain usually on one side of your buttock, persistent painful tingling or numbness, and weakness in the back of one or both legs. Experts estimate that up to 40% of adults will experience sciatica at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, without proper treatment, the condition can become chronic.

When done regularly, the right corrective exercises can help relieve and prevent sciatica.

If you’ve had sciatica pain, you’ve probably spent hours searching the internet for ways to stop it, only to come across conflicting advice. That’s because sciatica is a symptom of many conditions that respond to different treatments. The most common causes stem from either nerve compression originating in the lumbar spine or nerve entrapment due to muscle tension in the buttocks pinching the sciatic nerve.

With the various causes of sciatica, there is no single magic bullet for relief. However, the right corrective exercises done regularly can be effective not only in relieving sciatica but also in preventing it. Read on for techniques you can try to determine the cause of your pain and the best ways to relieve it.

You may feel your worst sciatic nerve pain in the muscles of your buttocks or in your leg, but that pain doesn’t necessarily mean it’s originating there. Although muscle tension in your hips could be causing the pain, the pressure on the nerve could also be coming from your lower back due to compression of the spine and pelvic position. Because of this, you should try different exercises that target these different areas to see how your pain responds.

Below, I describe the best approaches to pinpoint the causes of your pain and share exercises to do for relief and prevention. If you’re doing exercises, stop immediately if your pain increases or feels “wrong.”

The exercises listed below are designed to treat the most common causes of sciatica, but not all types of back pain respond to the same remedy, so not all exercises are right for everyone.

Important note: Talk to your doctor to understand the cause of your pain and get approval before beginning any exercise program.

If your sciatica stems from your lower back and pelvic position, engaging and strengthening the deep core muscles will help stabilize your lower back while also working to bring your pelvis into neutral alignment.

VIDEO: Seated Bent Knee Block for Sciatica

The seated bent knee block featured in this video strengthens your lower, deep core muscles while also activating your inner thighs to realign your pelvis. If sitting on the floor is too much for you now, do the modified version of the exercise while sitting in a chair (also demonstrated in the video) or go back to the breathing bridge exercise included in the second part of our series, which works the muscles in a similar way.

When trying this exercise or any of the above variations, be sure to tune into your mind-body connection so you can better understand the sensations you are experiencing and how you should respond to them. If your pain increases or increases at all, stop immediately. If your pain subsides, it shows that you are on the right track with your sciatica treatment. Do two to three rounds of this exercise once or twice a day for the next few days to see how you feel.

You may want to try this hip flexor exercise as well, as it also serves to realign your pelvis to take pressure off your lower back.

We’ve already talked about how tight hips lead to lower back compensation, which leads to back pain. Tight hips can also cause sciatica because tight muscles in the center of the buttocks — your piriformis muscles — put pressure on the sciatic nerve. This condition is known as piriformis syndrome. If piriformis syndrome is the cause of your sciatica symptoms, releasing the tension in your hips will take pressure off the nerves to relieve your symptoms.

VIDEO: Seated rotation for sciatica pain

The seated hip-opening twist in this video is designed to stretch your piriformis. Try this exercise slowly and carefully, paying attention to your form as you rotate. The twist must be initiated from your mid-back. Don’t force it, as compensating from your lower back could aggravate disc problems. Stop if your pain worsens.

If you feel like your sciatica symptoms are diminishing while doing this exercise, do two to three rounds once or twice a day for a few days to see your progress. You should also try the lying down and seated hip opening exercises included in the full video at the top of this article.

Manual soft-tissue techniques like massage and foam rolling can also provide some symptom relief, but the only way to prevent sciatica is to proactively use corrective exercise to strengthen, mobilize, and realign the areas of your body that caused the problem first Place.

Look for the final part of our series to help you create a proactive, long-term strategy for maintaining your back health for a pain-free, active lifestyle.

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