Before reviewing specific sciatica exercises, it is first important to explain what sciatica is, as the term sciatica is often misused and its definition misunderstood. Sciatica is a set of symptoms, not a diagnosis in itself (meaning it does not explain the cause of the pain).
Sciatica (radiculopathy) is a general term that refers to pain caused by compression or irritation of one or more nerves exiting the lower spine that make up the sciatic nerve, and there are a number of different conditions that can cause this.
The medical term for sciatica is a radiculopathy, which means that a spinal disc has extended beyond its normal position and is irritating the radicular nerve (nerve root) in the lower back, which connects with the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve branches off as it travels down the lower extremity through the back of the leg. Sciatic pain can be experienced along this nerve route.
Active exercise is important for sciatica (radiculopathy) relief
While it may seem counterintuitive, exercise is usually better for healing sciatic pain than bed rest. Patients may rest for a day or two after their sciatica flares up, but after that time period, inactivity will usually make the pain worse. Without exercise and movement, the back muscles and spinal structures become deconditioned and less able to support the back.
The deconditioning and weakening can lead to back injury and strain, which causes additional back pain. Exercise is also important for the health of the spinal discs. Movement helps exchange nutrients and fluids within the discs to keep them healthy.
Many sciatica exercises focus on strengthening the abdominal and back muscles in order to provide more support for the back. Stretching exercises for sciatica target muscles that cause pain when they are tight and inflexible. When patients engage in a regular program of gentle strengthening and stretching exercises, they can recover more quickly from a flare up of sciatica and can help to prevent future episodes of pain.
Specific sciatica exercises depend on the cause of the pain
A physical therapist, certified athletic trainer (ATC), chiropractor, physiatrist or other spine specialist who treats the back pain and leg pain associated with sciatica may recommend exercise as part of a treatment program. It is important to first get an accurate diagnosis for the cause of sciatic pain, as the specific back exercises recommended will depend on the cause of the sciatica. It is also important to get a diagnosis before starting any sciatica exercises because, while rare, sciatic pain can be caused by some serious medical conditions (such as an infection or tumor) that require prompt medical attention.
Exercises for the common causes of sciatica or sciatica-like symptoms are explained in the next pages sections of this article listed in the menu near the bottom of this page.
It is recommended that all patients consult a physician or physical therapist prior to beginning any exercise program.
Treating sciatica is part of a daily routine
To be effective, the sciatica exercises recommended for specific conditions must be done regularly (typically two times daily) and correctly. Close attention to posture and body mechanics is the key to getting the maximum benefit from the exercises. Continuing with a program of gentle exercise and stretching is beneficial for a current episode of sciatica but also for overall back health and for preventing future back problems.
Caring for sciatica should be considered part of one's daily living, not just something to add to the routine at the end of the day. In addition to an exercise routine, patients with sciatica should minimize everyday stress on the lower back, including using good ergonomics while lifting, maintaining good posture, making sure the lower back is supported while sitting, and avoiding standing for long periods of time.