Back pain is a very common problem. In fact, almost all adults in the U.S. will experience some kind of back pain during their lives. Myself included, that’s why I’ve created a complete guide about Back Pain Relief, that you can find here. Back pain can be acute, i.e. the result of a fall, lifting something heavy with a rounded back, or an accident. It can also be chronic, meaning it’s a long-term problem caused by being overweight, having poor posture, or even pregnancy.
Back pain a leading cause of work absenteeism and, for many, is a daily burden. There are lots of types of back pain, but amongst the most common is sciatica.
Sciatica refers to back pain caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in your body, and runs from your lower back, down your leg, and all the way to your feet. If pressure is placed on this nerve, it causes pain to radiate through your back and down one or both your legs. This pain can range from a mild throbbing to excruciatingly sharp, and may or may not be accompanied by muscle weakness.
The main cause of sciatica is a bulging disk in your lower vertebral column. If a disk bulges outward, it can put pressure on the sciatic nerve, triggering pain anywhere along the length of the nerve, but most commonly in the lower back, buttocks, and rear of the upper leg.
The good news is that sciatica is a very treatable condition and, in most cases, can also be prevented from happening again. Common treatments include:
- Ice packs to reduce inflammation
- Heat pads to relax muscles
- Medication – best prescribed by your doctor
- Acupuncture – for muscle relaxation and pain relief
- Exercises designed to reposition the disk and relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve
- Exercises to improve posture and strengthen the lower back to prevent future disk bulges
While sciatica can be successfully treated, it’s a better idea to try and avoid it in the first place.
Your spine is an amazing, complex structure made up of 33 vertebrae, 23 intervertebral disks, dozens of ligaments, and a great many muscles too. When your spine is properly aligned, i.e. in good posture, the stresses that it must endure are supported by the bones themselves, which are very strong, with the muscles providing assistance where necessary.
However, if you spend a lot of time leaning forward and in bad posture, i.e. sitting slouched over your computer or driving, your spine falls out of good alignment which places more stress in the ligaments and intervertebral disks. This is doubly true if you are overweight as that excess weight around your abdomen will pull you forward and into bad posture.
Your intervertebral disks are tough pads of cartilage with a softer center that allows your spine to flex forward and backward, and from side to side. However, when you habitually lean forward, the disks are pushed backward and may start to bulge toward the rear of your spine.
When this happens, they can press against the sciatic nerve, and that is the start of sciatica. The longer you spend in a hunched, flexed position, the more the disk will bulge, and the more pain you are likely to experience.
However, losing weight and adopting a better posture can reduce your risk of developing sciatica to almost zero, especially if you also avoid rounding your lower back when lifting and carrying heavy objects.
While there are medical treatments for sciatica, including anti-inflammatory steroidal injections and surgery, in most cases, sciatica can be successfully treated with physical therapy. It’s also important to take steps to prevent it from happening again i.e. losing weight and adopting better posture.
Because I am not a doctor, but just someone who is interested in helping people lead a happier, healthier lifestyle, I’ll only be offering you advice on how to use exercise to treat and prevent sciatica. And, in my opinion, this is by far and away the best way to treat and also avoid sciatica. You should, of course, speak to your doctor regarding any medial issue you might have – and that includes sciatica or back pain in general.
So, to summarize what you need to do to prevent sciatic nerve pain, remember too:
- Avoid sitting for long periods
- Break up periods of sitting with walking and standing as often as possible
- Do not slouch – sit and stand up straight
- Be more active
- Lose weight
5 Stretching Exercises
Sciatic nerve pain exercises
Exercises can help take pressure off the sciatic nerve. In most cases, they are designed to draw the disk away from the nerve. This can often produce instant pain relief, and repeating these exercises may help prevent sciatic pain from returning. These exercises are presented in order of difficulty so I strongly suggest doing each one in turn.
This very easy exercise uses your breath to open up your vertebrae, reducing pressure on any bulging disks, and therefore the sciatic nerve. It’s very simple and requires no exertion, so it’s ideal even if you are unfit. It’s also quite relaxing! I like to do this exercise before doing any other lower back exercises, and anytime I feel tension creeping into my back.
Exercise instructions: Lie on your front with your arms folded under your head. While staying relaxed, breathe into your abdomen and try and push your stomach out to the side and into the floor. Exhale fully and repeat.
Elbow back bend
This exercise encourages any bulging intervertebral disks to move forward, returning to their proper position, thus taking pressure off the sciatic nerve. The key to making this exercise as painless as possible is to ease and roll into it gently – just as you’ll see in this video. If you find that, even resting on your elbows, your lower back hurts, place a cushion or rolled towel under your hips to reduce the extent of the stretch.
Exercise instructions: Le on your front and rest on your elbows, just like you are reading a book at the beach. Keep your hips on the floor and lift your upper body so you are resting on your elbows. Stay in this position until you feel your lower back begin to relax.
It’s not often that doing an exercise with bad technique will help fix an injury but, in the case of sloppy push-ups, it will! This exercise is a more active version of the elbow back bend, and is designed to pump your bulging disk back into position. Extend your arms as far as you feel comfortable; if your back hurts, don’t push up so far. You should find that, as your disk moves back into the right position, you can go a little higher.
Exercise instructions: Lie on your front with your hands below your shoulders. Keeping your hips on the floor, extend your arms and push your chest and shoulders up off the floor. Bend your arms, lower yourself back to the floor, and repeat.
Yoga exercises for sciatica pain relief
Yoga combines stretching and strengthening exercises that can help treat and prevent sciatica. These three exercises are gentle but effective. Make sure you ease into each one gradually and do not force yourself to work harder than is comfortable.
Yoga’s cat cow stretch is a good way to mobilize your spine and pump your bulging disk back into place. You may find that, initially, you have limited movement in your spine. But, after a few repetitions, you should loosen up and start to feel some pain relief. Move slowly from one pose to the next, and remember to breathe in time with your movements.
Exercise instructions: Kneel on all fours with your hips over your knees and your shoulders over your hands. Lift the middle of your back up to the ceiling and lower your head toward the floor. Next, look up to the ceiling and lower your abdomen down toward the floor. Keep alternating between this positions for several repetitions.
Child’s pose is a relaxing way to correct poor posture and place your spine into a mild extension, reversing the slump and slouch so many of us adopt for most of the day. This will help prevent poor posture and keep your disks from bulging against your sciatic nerve.
Exercise instructions: Kneel down with your arms extended in front of you. Shift your hips backward and lower your chest and arms toward the floor. Imagine melting your chest into the ground. Keep your spine long throughout.
Reclining spinal twist
This exercise opens up your spine and gives it a gentle twist; it’s one of my favorites as it feels great. After doing this, my back feels loose and limber, and any residual back tension just melts away. Don’t worry if you can’t twist as far as the yogi in the video; just go as far as you feel comfortable. Ease into it and relax, not forgetting to breathe.
Exercise instructions: Lie on your back with one leg bent and one leg straight. Reach across and put your hand on the opposite bent knee. Pull the bent knee gently over to the side and twist your spine. Try to keep your shoulders flat on the floor.
Sciatic nerve stretches
In some cases, stretching the sciatic nerve itself, as well as the muscles through which the nerve passes, can be beneficial. Ease off if you feel a burning sensation along the nerve as this would suggest you are taking your stretch too far. Any sensations you experience should be very mild, and definitely not painful.
Figure four stretch
This exercise is a nice stretch for your glutes and lower back, as well as your sciatic nerve. Increase the stretch gradually by moving your supporting foot closer to your butt. You can also do this exercise sat in a chair which makes it more comfortable. I sometimes do that variation when I’m sat at my desk at work!
Exercise instructions: Sit on the floor with your legs bent. Cross your left leg over your right knee. Sit up and lean forward to feel a deep stretch in your buttock and sciatic nerve.
Lying hamstring stretch with strap
The sciatic nerve runs the entire length of your leg down to your foot. It passes through one of the main muscles responsible for poor posture and back pain – your hamstrings. Tight hamstrings are a leading cause of a rounded lower back, and that can soon lead to sciatic nerve pain. If you only ever do one stretch, this exercise should be it.
Exercise instructions: Lie on your back with one straight on the floor and the other leg held vertical. Loop your strap over your foot. Gently pull your leg up to stretch your hamstring. Swap legs and then repeat.
Seated sciatic nerve stretch
This exercise involves slouching but, in this instance, it’s a good thing and not bad. This exercise stretches your sciatic nerve from one end to the other. Because you do this exercise sat on a chair, you can do it almost anywhere – at home or at the office. I don’t suggest you do it while driving though! Like any nerve stretching exercise, ease off if you feel any kind of burning sensation as this suggests you have gone too far, too soon.
Exercise instructions: Sit on a chair with one leg flat on the floor, and the other leg extended in front of you, toes pulled up. Slouch forward and feel a stretch along your sciatic nerve. Take it easy; reduce the stretch if you feel excessive burning.
Why we get sciatic nerve pain
Sciatic nerve pain is most commonly caused by a bulging intervertebral disk pressing directly on the sciatic nerve. This causes irritation and inflammation of the nerve, resulting in localized lower back pain It can also cause radiating pain that travels down the buttock and the leg.
Bulging disks are most commonly the result of sitting and working with a habitually rounded lower back, and also lifting things with a similar, rounded posture. This type of posture and movement forces the intervertebral disk backward and out of proper alignment. A bulging disk and the subsequent pain it causes are sometimes called a pinched nerve.
As well as a bulging disk, sciatic nerve pain can be caused by other things including:
- Irritation of the nerve caused by adjacent bones and abnormal bone spurs
- Tumors pressing on the sciatic nerve
- Tight muscles
- Spinal injury e.g. an impact of some sort
- Internal bleeding
- Nerve injury
- Internal bleeding
- Infection of the tissue around the spine
Because of the numerous causes, it is important that, if you experience anything like sciatic nerve pain, you get it checked by your doctor. In most cases, the cause will be a simple bulging disk, for which the treatment is usually quick and easy. However, it is important to eliminate more serious causes of sciatic nerve pain.
Why is so common?
Sciatic pain caused by bulging intervertebral disks is very common because most of us spend the majority of our time sat down, doing very little physical activity. When you sit down, invariably you slouch – be it over your keyboard or at your steering wheel. This habitual seated position puts pressure on the front of your spine which, in turns, pushes your intervertebral disk toward the rear.
As the disk starts to bulge outward, it comes into contact and puts pressure on your sciatic nerve. This causes irritation and inflammation. Because the sciatic nerve is very long, running from your lower back to your feet, this can cause both localized pain in your lower back, and radiating pain up and down your leg.
Modern life is very sedentary, and most of us spend the majority of our time sitting in chairs. Then, on the rare occasions we do stand up, we are still slouched over because all that sitting has damaged our posture. This increases the degree of disk bulging, leading to yet more pressure on the sciatic nerve.
People who spend long periods of their time standing, walking, and being active, have a much lower chance of developing sciatic nerve pain but, for the majority of us, sitting for long periods is part and parcel of modern life. However, it is long periods of sitting that make sciatic nerve pain so common. The solution? Stand more, sit less, and get active!
So, to recap why sciatic nerve pain is so common, it is usually the result of:
- Spending too much time sat down
- Sitting and standing with poor posture
- Long periods of work sat at a computer or driving
- Being overweight
- Lifting with a rounded back
Why is so painful?
Nerve pain is one of the most intense forms of pain you can experience, and sciatic nerve pain is amongst the worst. But what makes it so bad? Why is sciatica something that most people dread?
- It affects your legs – because the sciatic nerve runs down your legs, it’s very hard to avoid making the pain worse. After all, you use your legs a lot. Standing and walking are very painful when you have sciatica, and those activities can be hard to avoid. This can mean you frequently trigger more pain when going about your daily life, no matter how gently you try to take it.
- Every time you move, you aggravate your lower back – sitting, standing, lying down; everything you do involves your lower back. When you have sciatic nerve pain, it can be very hard to find any position that offers you any relief. I know that when I had sciatic back pain, I couldn’t do anything without it hurting, and this made me very unhappy.
- Muscle spasms – in an effort to protect you from further pain and injury, the muscles surrounding your source of pain will tense up and spasm. This is yet another source of pain. When a muscle spasms, it contracts very hard and for extended periods of time. This cuts off the blood flow into the muscle, which is yet another cause of pain. With both your nerves and your muscles radiating pain, it’s no wonder that sciatica can be so debilitating.
What is the sciatic nerve?
The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the human body, running from your lower spine all the way down your legs to your feet. It is a motor nerve which means it is responsible for controlling the actions of your muscles. It also detects sensation in the foot and sole of the foot, making it a sensory nerve too.
The sciatic nerve originates at the lumbar and sacral spine, specifically the L4 to S3 vertebrae, and called the sacral plexus – a plexus being a bundle of nerves. It then branches out to run down each leg. It travels through the front of your pelvis, out of the back, and down the rear of your thigh. From here, it continues down the tibia or shin bone, and then into the foot and heel.
It’s not just a long nerve; it’s also very thick. In its upper region, it is as thick as your thumb whereas, nearing your foot, it is much thinner.
Because the sciatic nerve itself is very long, and has branches that lead off to reach various leg muscles, irritation of the L4-S3 region can cause pain anywhere along its length – including the buttocks, leg, and even the foot.
Check out this picture to see the location and layout of the sciatic nerve.
How long does it take for sciatica to go away?
You can reduce the pain of sciatica almost instantly by pushing the bulging disk back into place with physical therapy exercises. However, unless you stop doing whatever caused the disk to bulge in the first place, it will soon return.
In most instances, it will take between 4-8 weeks to fully get rid of sciatic pain but that does depend on the cause. Some causes are more serious and harder to fix than others. If you think your sciatic pain is taking longer to go that it should, make sure you a) follow your doctor’s instructions and adhere to their treatment plan to the letter, and b) report back to them to let them know you still have pain.
What causes sciatica pain in right leg?
From your lower back, where the sciatic nerve originates, it branches out and down your left and your right leg. If your nerve pain is caused by a bulging intervertebral disk, and the bulge affects the right branch of the nerve, it’s your right leg that is most likely to be affected. Slouching to one side, in this instance, the right could cause a lopsided bulge which affects one leg of the other.
Does sciatica ever go away?
Yes indeed! I had sciatica for quite a while but, by sitting less, using a stand-up desk, losing weight, and working out more, as well as doing the exercises in this article, I have managed to treat my sciatica and stop it from coming back.
The key to preventing sciatica is being more aware of your posture and avoiding slouching. Also, if you know you are prone to sciatica, do the exercises in this article as a preventative measure; don’t wait for the pain to start before you do them.
What helps sciatic nerve pain?
The most important thing you can do to help sciatic nerve pain is to relieve the pressure on your sciatic nerve, and that means adopting a better posture and then pumping the bulging intervertebral disk back into its proper place. Reaching and maintaining your ideal weight is also going to help.
Ultimately, the less sitting you do, the better, and doing the exercises from this article can also help reduce your risk of developing what is a very painful back condition.
Is it OK to walk with sciatica pain?
Yes, it is, but you may not want to walk very far or fast. Because sciatic pain can affect your legs, you may find walking uncomfortable. But, I have found that doing the sciatic nerve pain exercises in this article can make walking much less painful, as they take the pressure of the affecting nerve and that makes everything feel better.
If your doctor has prescribed them, pain meds may also make walking more comfortable but, remember, they only mask the problem and do not fix it. Too much walking could make things worse – something you only realize when the pain meds wear off.
How can I sit at work to help my sciatica pain?
Sitting with sciatica can be painful, but you can make yourself a little more comfortable by doing these things:
- Raise your chair so that your hips are slightly higher than your knees
- Use a lumbar support to stop you from slouching
- Make sure your screen and keyboard are the right height for you
- Stand up and move for five minutes every hour
- Use a standing desk
- Place a heat pad on your lower back
- Perch on the edge of your set so that you cannot slouch
- Sit on a stability ball instead of a regular chair
- Use a kneeling chair
Can yoga help sciatica?
Yes, it can. In fact, I’ve included three yoga stretches in this article (click here to scroll to the exercises), and some of the other stretches have their roots in yoga too. Yoga combines stretching and strengthening and places a big emphasis on posture too. However, I’d be wary of doing an entire yoga class if you have sciatica right now as some of the poses could make things worse. Instead, just do the yoga poses that you find in this article, plus any others known for being beneficial for sciatica.
Can sciatica be caused by sitting?
Sitting too much is a leading cause of sciatica. When you sit, you probably slouch, and this puts pressure on the front of your spine. This pressure squeezes your intervertebral disks backward, and against your sciatic nerve. This causes inflammation and irritation which leads to pain down the sciatic nerve. For that reason, if you want to avoid or treat existing sciatic pain, I strongly recommend that you try to sit less and move more. If you must sit, try not to slouch.
Can swimming help with sciatica?
Swimming is a good form of exercise for sciatica as its non-weight bearing, and that makes it easy on your lower back. But, you may find that breaststroke, which involves keeping your chest up as your hips drop, puts to much pressure on your lower back. Because of this, front crawl and backstroke may be the best swimming techniques when you have sciatica asa they keep your body level and straight. Deep water running is also a good way to exercise in water when you have sciatica.
What exercises can I do for sciatica?
You can do almost any exercise you like so long as it doesn’t hurt. The best types of exercise will promote good posture, flexibility, mobility, and core strength while avoiding too much impact. Click here to scroll to the exercises I’ve shared on this article. You should be able to do some exercises in the gym, go swimming, walk, and you may be able to jog and cycle. It all depends on how painful your condition is, and how far along you are in terms of recovery.
As a rule of thumb, if whatever you are doing feels okay, you can probably keep at it. But, if it makes your sciatic pain worse, you should stop and try something else instead.
Don’t feel you have to exercise hard to get benefits; if your sciatic pain is particularly bad, even an easy workout can help.
What is the cause of sciatic nerve pain?
Sciatic nerve pain is most commonly caused by a bulging intervertebral disk putting pressure on your sciatic nerve. This causes both localized and radiating pain in the lower back and down the legs. The most common cause of sciatic nerve pain is too much sitting and slouching. However, injury and some illnesses such as tumors can also put pressure on the sciatic nerve. For that reason, you should have any sciatic pain diagnosed by your doctor.
How does a doctor diagnose sciatica?
Sciatic nerve pain is usually diagnosed through observation and palpation i.e. a standard medical examination. Your doctor might also perform special tests to measure your strength and identify the type of pain you are experiencing. These usually involve stretching and other movements.
In a few rare cases, he may order X-rays or an MRI scan to eliminate any more serious causes of sciatic nerve pain such as a tumor. Because sciatic pain is so common, it’s often easy to identify just from your symptoms alone.
Where does the sciatic nerve run in the body?
Your sciatic nerve starts at the sacral plexus which is a bundle of nerves at the bottom of your lumbar and top of your sacral spine. From here, it splits and branches off, traveling through your pelvis, and down the back of your thighs, behind your knees, down your calves, and to your heels. It is the longest single nerve in the human body and is as thick as your thumb in some places, and very much thinner in others.
Where is the sciatic nerve?
He sciatic nerve runs from your lower back to your heels, via the back of your legs. Because it’s such a long nerve, when it is irritated or inflamed, it can cause pain anywhere along its length, although it most commonly affects the lower back, buttocks, and rear of the thigh.
Image credit: All American Healthcare