Suffering from sciatica? These are the 5 best exercises for relief

Sciatica is an excruciating, intense aggravation of the nerves in one’s back due to bulging or herniated discs, which cause shooting pains to radiate down one or both legs. Luckily, with a doctor’s permission, there are exercises that can relieve sciatica discomfort — these are the best five to try.

1. Knee-to-chest

The best thing to know about sciatica pain is that most of the time, relief can be found in a nice, comfortable hamstring stretch. The knee-to-chest also engages your glutes and can be altered to accommodate more or less difficulty. But as with all of these exercises, check with your doctor before you try something that has the potential to worsen your condition before plunging head-first into the world of sciatica self-care.

First, lie on a firm surface with your legs bent at the knee, your feet flat on the ground, and your arms resting at your sides. Then, lift one knee up to your chest as you keep the other foot on the floor.

If you’re able to, wrap your arms around your lifted leg, pulling it as close to your chest as possible. Remember to keep both sides of your back pressed up against the floor, as this will ensure good form. Hold this position for thirty seconds, and then repeat on the other side.

If you’d like to step this exercise up from a stretch to a weight-bearing workout, and your sciatica won’t be aggravated by your doing so, you can put leg weight around your ankles or your thighs.

2. Pelvic tilt

The pelvic tilt, while simple, is incredibly helpful for sciatica pain. It also can be altered if you’re looking for a little more of a challenge.

First, lie in the position you’d take at the start of the knee-to-chest exercise, on your back with your legs bent, and your arms loose. Then, engage your core – which is a fancy way of telling someone to tighten their stomach muscles – and tilt your hips and pelvis upwards as you press your back into the flood, yoga mat, bed, or wherever you may be lying. If you can, engage your glutes, and tighten those muscles as well. This exercise is held for thirty seconds, then repeat.

To add a little spice to your pelvic tilts, you can use the muscles on the backs of your legs to lift yourself into a bridge. But again, this is only for those whose sciatica wouldn’t be worsened by more intense physical activity.

3. Leg lift

A quick and easy leg lift can be done at any desk chair or kitchen chair and will build muscles just as efficiently as it’ll stretch your hamstrings.
You’ll start by sitting down, back straight and feet flat on the ground.

Before you do any lifting, start by taking the particularly painful leg and placing it out in front of you with your heel on the ground, and your toes pointing up. Stretch out your hamstring and calf, and see how it feels. If it’s too painful, this is as far as you have to go. If it’s not, you can proceed with lifting.

Keep your leg in line with your hips, and your knee straight but not hyperextended. Now lift your leg as high as it will go. Make a mental note of wherever it may have gotten to, then put it down.

Next, repeat the exercise with your other side. But this time, try for repetitions of leg lifts – if you need to, put your hands laced behind the back of your hamstring for support. Do 25 repetitions of leg lifts on your good side, then place your foot back on the ground. Go back to your sciatica leg – can you lift it higher than before? Are you in any less pain on that side?

4. Cobra pose

Cobra pose might be slightly more advanced than some of the other exercises, but if you can do it without leaving the gym in agony, it’ll more than likely aid your sciatica recovery by leaps and bounds.

Whereas the first two activities had you lying on your back, this one will have you starting on your stomach. You’ll place your arms up squarely below your shoulders with your forearms resting on the ground, and try to lift up your chest while keeping your hips flat against the floor. If you can, go up even further, and put your weight on your hands rather than your forearms. Hold this for ten seconds, then rest for ten seconds. Do three repetitions of this exercise, then see how you feel afterward.

5. Laying-down leg curl

The leg curl is easier to do with a machine, but if you don’t have access to a gym, there’s still a way to alter these for a home workout.

Again, lay on your stomach with your arms in whichever position is the most comfortable. Then, lift both legs by bending them at the knee, and try to get your heels as close to your butt as you can. Then put your feet back on the floor, in line with your hips, and repeat the exercise for 15 reps.

Do this three times for a total of 45 reps, or as many as you can do before you start feeling any pain. For less severe cases of sciatica, you might want to add ankle weights to this exercise.

6. Sit-and-stand squat

The sit-and-stand squat is the most difficult of all sciatica exercises, so if you have serious issues with this intense chronic pain, steer clear of this one. However, if you only suffer from mild sciatica, this can definitely aid in muscle retention, and lessen the pain of daily activities.

You’ll start this exercise standing with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointed straight ahead of you. You should have a chair or bench behind you, far enough away that you can sit on it. Bending at the knees and engaging your core, you’ll place your hands clasped in front of you, and squat until your butt is lightly touching the seat. Without sitting, you then raise yourself up using your quadriceps.

Repeat this ten times, then rest. If you’re able to continue, do another ten reps. While your legs might be sore the next day, your back will thank you in the long run.

The takeaway

Exercise is of the utmost importance when it comes to back pain, and stretching or weight lifting can make all the difference when one is recovering from sciatica. In conjunction with ice, heat, and whatever the doctor’s orders might be, these easy-to-do movements can provide lasting relief for all types of sciatica patients.