Sciatica can be a (very literal) pain in the butt, but it doesn’t have to be. With proper stretching techniques, you can alleviate sciatica pain over time—and ensure you strengthen your muscles so it doesn’t come back so easily.
Personally, I’ve struggled with sciatica pain on and off for the past two years, so I know firsthand just how excruciating it can be when it gets bad. Even something like sitting—a favorite activity of mine!—can become extremely painful. Things like walking and practicing good posture can help alleviate sciatica pain, but nothing is better for longterm recovery and relief than physical therapy and stretching. "I am a big fan of stretches for patients who are suffering from sciatica," Dr. Febin Melepura, the medical director of Sports and Pain Institute of New York, shares. "It not only maintains your range of motion, but it also prevents other injuries from developing as your body strains other joints and muscles to compensate for the initial injury."
Meet the Expert
Dr. Febin Melepura is an Ivy League trained sport injury doctor and pain management specialist in NYC who is highly specialized in treating any pain related issues. Melepura is board-certified in Pain Management and Anesthesiology.
If you’re a sufferer of sciatica, you're likely more than familiar with the symptoms and possible causes. In short, it's a pretty common nerve pain condition that involves the sciatic nerve—a large nerve that runs from your hips through your buttocks and down the backs of your thighs—becoming pinched. This can be because of a herniated disk, a sports injury, inflamed tissue or muscle, or even just sitting too much. When it happens, though, the outcome is the same: Pain. Some feel aching, others feel sharp pains, and some feel electric jolt-like sensations—whatever the feeling, it’s unpleasant.
“When one joint in your body is tight, it is not able to work and move like it should. When this happens, another joint or area of your body has to take over for it and do its job. This is called 'a compensation.' These compensations can then lead to pain and injury down the line." says Dr. Grayson Wickham, a physical therapy doctor and the founder of Movement Vault, a digital platform to help you decrease pain, prevent injury, and increase your flexibility and mobility.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Grayson Wickham, PT, DPT, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), who has worked with everyone from NFL, MLB, professional tennis players, and professional CrossFit athletes. Grayson is the founder of Lux Physical Therapy and Performance, located in New York City. He also teaches mobility and movement workshops all over the world.
"When you have tight or weak gluteus and hamstring muscles, your lower back joints and muscles have to compensate,” Dr. Wickham continues. “This compensation can lead to straining your low back muscles and/or damaging a vertebral disc. When you damage a disc, it shoots out backward and compresses nerves. One of these nerves is your sciatic nerve, which is the nerve that is responsible for the numbness, tingling, and burning pain associated with sciatica.”
Below are a few of the best stretches for sciatica, as recommended by experts. Remember to consult a medical professional before beginning any new stretching routine for sciatica to ensure that it works for your body.
One of the most commonly recommended stretches for sciatica is the Figure 4 stretch. It entails sitting down and crossing one leg (so that one foot is on the thigh of your opposite leg). “Pull that leg towards you,” Adrianne Yurgosky, the owner of Westside Pilates says. "Yoga's Half Pigeon stretch is similar, but it applies more pressure. These two stretches work especially if the piriformis [muscle] is pinching the nerve."
The Half Pigeon, Yurgosky says, involves "placing one leg on the ground in front of you and laying your thigh on its side on the ground. Bend your leg at a 90 degree angle, and then lean forward to feel your hips opening." Melissa Vogel, a certified personal trainer and founder of Melissa Vogel Fitness, agrees. "It's a great, really helpful move you can perform at home to help relieve sciatic pain pretty immediately."
Though the Double Pigeon stretch sounds similar to the Half Pigeon stretch in name, they're actually quite different. Double Pigeon is performed by sitting on the ground and crossing your legs in front of you. Take one leg and place it on top of the other, as if you’re sitting cross-legged but with way more stretching involved.
"[This stretch will] help release tension around the piriformis and external rotators of the hip which are what often cause trouble for the sciatic nerve,” Erin Motz, NASM Certified Personal Trainer and co-founder of Bad Yogi, explains.
A Basic Hamstring
Though it might be called basic, for sciatica, it’s anything but. “[This stretch] can do wonders for sciatica pain,” Vogel explains.
For this stretch, Vogel recommends the following: "Sit on a hard surface with your legs extended straight out in front of you. Hinge at the hips, and round your back over, reaching for your toes. Hold for 30-60 seconds. This will help relax and loosen up your hamstrings; the large muscle that runs along the backside of your legs.”
Traction stretches are a bit less traditional than the other stretches on this list, but according to Yurgosky, it’ll help to strengthen your core while releasing any compression that may be causing sciatic pain.
“[Traction stretches are] having your hips lifted while doing an exercise. You can use props like a foam roller, a ball (but that is less stable), a yoga block, a barrel, etc.," Yurgosky explains. "That way your hips are lifted in the air to help release the disc compression—you can move your legs (stay within your framework) and do circles, frogs (bending out and in), walking, or scissors to strengthen your abdominals as you are stretching."
Cow Face Pose
Look at Cow Face Pose sort of like a reverse Double Pigeon—instead of sitting with your legs crossed over each other one way, you’re sitting with your legs crossed over each other the exact opposite way. One leg should be on its side, with your thigh against the ground at a 90-degree angle pointed away from you. Your other leg should be on top of it, on its side at a 90-degree angle pointed away from you in the opposite direction.
Motz recommends the pose for sciatica pain, and notes it should be performed "at least three times a week, but if you can do them every day just for a total of five minutes, you’ll feel a big difference quickly."
Full Range of Motion Hip Circles
These are exactly what they sound like: hip circles, which should be performed with full range of motion (i.e. a full circle). According to Dr. Wickham, they should be performed "once per day, [with] five slow reps in each direction, per side." These will help to activate the muscles around your hips and glutes, and help to further open your hip flexors.
Last but not least, this stretch starts on your hands and knees. You'll want to slowly arch and dip your back, so you feel your spine opening up and gaining more mobility. "[Perform this once per day, 10 slow and controlled reps up and down your entire spine," Dr. Wickham suggests.
"The most important thing about these stretches, and any exercise in general, is to listen to your body. There is no one-size-fits-all stretching and rehab plan for everyone experiencing low back pain and sciatica," He adds. “You want to make a note of how your body feels during the stretch, immediately after, and for the next 24 hours. If you feel your symptoms get worse due to the stretch, discontinue the stretch that exacerbated your symptoms." Of course, the solution won’t be overnight, but adopting a routine of stretching to help alleviate sciatica is a proactive thing someone can do to help get on the road to recovery.