You might know sciatica as lower back pain, tightness in your lower back muscles, or tingling in your legs. It’s not fun, and it gets in the way of daily life. Here are some yoga poses and chiropractor-recommended sciatica exercises to help you move toward full functionality. But first, let’s explore some of the possible causes of your sciatica, so you have a more holistic understanding of what’s going on inside of your body.
What causes sciatica?
Sciatica is caused by irritation or injury of the sciatic nerve. This nerve pain can radiate down the lower part of your body, from the low back to the hip to the thigh or even all the way down one leg or another. A chiropractor can help you determine the exact cause of your sciatica case, but here are some possibilities:
- A lower back injury can impinge upon the sciatic nerve or create a muscular imbalance which in turn causes nerve pain.
- Spinal stenosis
- Spinal stenosis can be caused by aging, scoliosis, birth spine defects, tumors, a naturally narrow spinal cord, or Paget’s disease of the bone.
- Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal column, which can in turn pinch and compress important nerves, such as the sciatic nerve.
- Ruptured or slipped disc
- A ruptured or slipped disc in the spine can have many causes but lifting large objects (especially without proper lifting form), aging, or weak lower back muscles all make it more likely for the outer ring of a spinal disc to weaken and the inner disc to slip out. This can impact your nerves and cause sciatica.
Getting ready to treat your sciatica
Your chiropractor can run tests. If your pain isn’t too severe, he or she will probably put you through a range of motions and positions to determine the exact cause of your sciatica. If your pain is more intense or resists previous treatment, your chiropractor might prescribe some imaging tests, such as a CT scan, MRI, EMG, or X-ray.
Depending on the specific cause of your sciatica, any pre-existing health conditions, and your current level of fitness, your chiropractor might modify, add to, or otherwise tailor the following sciatica exercises to be safer and more effective for your case. Remember, it’s always best to have professional guidance. That way, your chiropractor can monitor your progress, help you perform these exercises and stretches more effectively, and help prevent any further issues.
With that aside, below are some general yoga-inspired, chiropractor-approved sciatica exercises to help you manage your pain and get back to living a fuller life. Try to perform these stretches in order, as the sequencing can help strategically loosen and relax your tight leg muscles or lower back muscles.
1. Standing or sitting hamstring stretch
This is a fairly simple, intuitive stretch. First, find an elevated surface—approximately 3-4 feet off the ground—that you can place one foot on. Lift one leg up, rest that foot on the surface, and lean forward towards the elevated foot while keeping the elevated leg straight. You will probably feel a stretch in the back of your thigh (hamstring muscle), your lower back, or even your calf muscle.
If balancing predominantly on one foot proves to be too challenging, try a seated hamstring stretch, pictured below.
In either case, try to keep your back as straight as possible. Avoid rounding your spine or scrunching your neck to go deeper into the stretch and try to avoid yanking yourself forward with your hand. Instead, hinge forward from your hips, keep your spine straight, look straight ahead at your leg, and fold forward. You may not be able to reach your foot, and that’s fine. The most important thing in this stretch is to keep your back straight, hinge properly, and keep your straight leg as straight as possible. Be gentle and hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds to get maximum benefit.
If you ever feel a sharp pain when stretching, stop the stretch immediately and wait to talk to your chiropractor before performing that stretch again.
2. Forward fold
Stand up, reach your hands to the sky, and lean back just far enough to feel a gentle stretch in your shoulders, chest, or abdominal muscles. Then, fold forward, keeping your spine as relaxed as possible, and reach for your toes. It’s much more important to keep your legs nice and straight than it is to touch your toes. Relax your neck and hang out for 30 seconds. Try to imagine your hamstrings and back loosening up as you do this, letting you sink further and further into the fold.
3. Standing or sitting quad stretch
While this doesn’t directly target the lower back, it gets your body ready to release some more hip, leg, and lower back muscles.
Find a wall for a balance aid. With your right hand on the wall, balance on your right leg while bending your left leg up and behind you. Reach your left hand back and grab your left foot. You should feel a stretch in the front of your thigh (your quadricep muscle). Focus on relaxing that muscle. If you don’t feel too much of a stretch yet, try imagining pushing your knee down and towards the floor while simultaneously pulling your foot back. Once you find a suitable angle, hold the stretch for at least 20 seconds before switching sides.
4. Knee-to-shoulder stretch—two versions
This provides you with gentle, gradual, repeated release.
Lay down on your back on a firm surface. Stretch your right leg out below you on the floor or mat, bend your left leg, and pull your left leg into your chest. Pull gently on your left knee until you reach a suitably challenging angle for you. Hold this stretch for at least 30 seconds—a minute is optimal.
Release the stretch and do the same thing to the other side.
After you’ve performed version 1 on both sides, stretch your right leg out below you on the floor or mat again, bend your left leg, and pull your left leg into your chest by applying gentle pressure to your left knee with your hands.
To add to this stretch, however, use your hands to slowly bring your left leg towards the right side of your body. Imagine pulling your left knee towards your right shoulder. Once you’ve found a degree of stretch that feels right for you—you will probably feel this in the outside of your left hip—stay there for 20 to 30 seconds before switching sides.
5. Seated pigeon pose
This is a staple yoga pose, and I’ll walk you through the variations, going from easiest to most difficult. No one variation is better than the other, and each is instrumental in helping to reduce tension in lower back muscles, glutes, and your iliopsoas when performed in alignment.
As a quick anatomy lesson, ‘’glutes’’ is a commonly accepted slang term that refers to the three main muscle groups in your rear end. Iliopsoas actually refers to your iliacus and psoas muscles, which start as two separate entities in your abdominal area but join in your hip and thigh area to help move your hip.
Your glutes and iliopsoas can easily become tight when dealing with sciatica pain, so a seated spinal stretch can be instrumental in helping relieve tightness.
Phase 1: Pre-pigeon
If your hips are incredibly tight and your sciatica is fairly severe, sit on the floor in a cross-legged position with your back straight. Focus on relaxing your hips into the ground. Maybe close your eyes as you do this for at least 30 seconds.
Next, if it isn’t painful, walk your hands out in front of you on the floor, keeping your spine as straight as possible. Whenever you find a challenging but not painful degree of stretch, stop there and hold the stretch for another 30 seconds. Remember to perform this stretch twice, once with your left leg on top and once with your right leg on top.
Phase 2: Seated full pigeon
You may choose to stay there, or you can try the full seated pigeon pose. Rest your left leg on the floor and then bend it in front of you, so that the knee is at a right angle. Next, stack your right leg on top of your left at as much of a right angle as possible, hooking your right heel over your left knee.
Your right knee may be hovering many inches above your left heel, and that’s fine. If that’s the case, just focus on sitting upright, keeping your back straight, and relaxing your hips for at least 30 seconds.
Phase 3: Forward fold pigeon
If you’re already fairly flexible in your hips, slowly hinge forward with a straight spine and walk your hands as far out in front of you as they will go while keeping good form. Hold for 30 seconds to one minute. Again, remember to perform this stretch twice, once with your left leg on top and once with your right leg on top.
6. Sitting spinal stretch
Sit on the floor with your spine straight. Stretch your right leg out in front of you along the floor. Bend your left leg into your chest, keeping your left foot level on the floor and close to your right thigh.
Next and if you can, hook your right arm over your left knee and twist as far to the left as you can. Try to imagine twisting and lengthening your spine at once. Hold at a challenging—but not acutely painful—degree for at least 30 seconds, then switch sides.
7. Elevated legs
This is a fairly simple, straightforward stretch, and it helps to relax the back while reducing inflammation in the legs.
Find a wall and scooch towards it. You want it to look like you’re almost trying to sit on the wall with your back against the floor: lift your legs, so your feet are facing up the wall with the backs of your legs against the wall as well.
Relax your entire spine and neck into the floor with your shoulder blades tucked underneath your back. This is a very restorative, anti-inflammatory pose that will help your body relax after pigeon and your spinal stretch. Hold for at least a minute.
8. Resting pose
Once more, I’m going to give you two versions. Choose whichever feels best for you, but if you have time, try following the first version with the second version.
Version 1: Reclining bound angle pose
Lie down on your back and bring the soles of your feet together. It’s like butterfly stretch but lying down. Your legs should make a diamond-like shape. Relax your back into the floor, stretch your arms out at your sides, and close your eyes.
Try to hold this pose for at least a minute. This pose will help balance out all of the outer hip and hamstring stretches you did earlier by helping you open your hips from an interior angle.
Version 2: Shavasana, or corpse pose
Don’t let the name put you off—this pose can help you feel more alive than before. Just lie back on the floor with feet straight out below your or slightly splayed out. Relax your hands to your sides, tuck your shoulder blades beneath your back, and close your eyes. Stay here for as long as you’d like. Just remember it’s pretty easy to fall asleep like this!
Following this sequence of stretches and sciatica exercises can help you combat sciatica pain and get back to living a fuller, more active life. However, it’s always good to seek the advice of a chiropractor when it comes to spinal pain or lower back muscle discomfort.
Contact Michigan Chiropractic Specialists today via our free online contact form or call us at Garden City (734) 838-0353 or West Bloomfield (248) 862-2226. We can help you find the perfect exercises and other treatments for your sciatica and get you moving.