Dealing with sciatica? Here’s how to work out with Sciatica correctly, so that you can still benefit from an exercise routine while simultaneously healing sciatica.
Sciatica is one of those pesky issues that may suddenly appear and last for weeks or even months. This health condition is typically characterized by lower back pain that radiates down the hip or leg (usually on one side) that is caused by an injury or pressure on the sciatic nerve.
Sometimes, people may confuse sciatica for other health conditions such as spinal stenosis, a herniated disc, or some type of hip muscle injury (none of which are pinching the sciatica nerve, as sciatica does). Due to frequent confusion between other problems that cause lower back pain and sciatica, sciatica is commonly used as a junk term for general back pain and problems.
Sciatica symptoms usually involve a specific type of pain that radiates from the lower back to the leg and foot. For some people, sciatica feels like a painful cramp in one leg that may persist for days.
It is important to see a doctor for proper diagnosis if you believe you have sciatica, as the treatment will be different than other issues that have similar symptoms. Typically, the doctor will diagnose you through a series of muscular tests that may include squatting, heel-toe walks, or straight leg raises.
If you have been diagnosed with sciatica, you can still reap the benefits of an awesome workout that is safe for sciatica and even helpful in the rehabilitation process. Here are our top five tips to working out while having sciatica:
Tip #1: Don’t do Any Exercises that Involve Sitting
In fact, you should avoid sitting as much as possible, since sitting down is often a cause of sciatica. If you must sit down, take frequent breaks to stand, stretch, or walk. People who place objects such as a wallet or cellphone in their back pocket and then sit down are at an increased risk of developing sciatica, since these objects add pressure to the sciatic nerve.
There are a variety of stretches and upper body exercises that can reduce the symptoms of sciatica during your recovery process.
A couple of great standing stretches include:
- Standing Calf Stretch: As sciatica can involve a cramping feeling in the leg, including the calf, performing a standing calf stretch can help loosen the muscle and relieve the pain. Start by standing in good posture a few inches away from a wall, facing the wall. Next, step forward with one foot and place your heel on the floor as the rest of your foot presses against the wall. Slowly lean in using your hips, while maintaining good standing posture, to deepen the stretch. Hold the stretch for twenty seconds and repeat three times on each leg.
- Standing Hamstring Stretch: This is a great stretch to reduce tightness in the hamstring that is caused or worsened by sciatica. Stand in good posture and then raise one leg straight and place it on a sturdy surface that is at or below hip-height. Keep a slight bend at the knee in your raised leg and keep your foot on that leg flexed. Then, use your hips to lean your body forward, while keeping the natural curve in your spine and not rounding out your back. Go as far forward as you can without losing your good posture. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds and then perform it on the other leg.
Tip #2: Don’t Perform Deadlifts or Straight Leg Raises
Performing deadlifts and straight leg raises will add further tension on your sciatic nerve — the number one thing you want to avoid doing in order to recover from sciatica. It is usually best to work the upper body and skip lower body exercises altogether until your sciatica resides.
Stretching the lower body can alleviate symptoms, but performing weight bearing routines involving the working of your muscles in your lower body can worsen your condition.
Tip #3: Limit Contraction Exercises of the Piriformis
Pressure on the piriformis (a muscle deep in the buttock that is positioned diagonally from the lower spine to upper portion of the femur) is another common cause of sciatica. Sitting, again, is one of the causes to pressure being placed on the piriformis (especially if you are sitting with items in your back pocket).
Running and walking long distances without increasing your mileage safely and gradually can tighten the piriformis. Running or walking long distances with tight hip flexors, tight glutes, or tight hamstrings will further increase your chances of developing piriformis syndrome, which attributes to tenderness or pain in the buttock area and can ultimately cause sciatica.
To avoid further irritation of the piriformis, it is best to limit any exercises that will cause the piriformis to contract. Exercises such as running or walking on hills or uneven surfaces, lunges, or lifting exercises can worsen your condition.
If you have sciatica that has been caused by tightness or injury to the piriformis, it is especially important to avoid some of the exercises that are generally known to treat piriformis syndrome, since some of these exercises can worsen sciatica. Complex stretches that you have not performed before can easily worsen either condition.
Again, it is best to seek the advice of a doctor or physical therapist regarding specific exercises that will not cause irritation to the piriformis or sciatic nerve.
Tip #4: Only Perform Upper Body Exercises
Photo by Limor Zellermayer on Unsplash
To heal as quickly as possible, it is best to neglect any exercises that work the muscles in the lower body. Performing only upper body exercises will prevent you from compressing the sciatic nerve.
Once your sciatica has healed, you can incorporate lower body exercises again at a safe and gradual pace, making sure to stop these exercises if you feel any pain or irritation.
Tip #4: Train Your Other Leg
Although sciatica may cause cramping, tingling, or pain in one leg, that doesn’t mean that you have to forget about the other! While typical lower body exercises are detrimental if you have sciatica, there are specific lower body exercises that you can do that will only target one leg (your good one). Some great single-leg exercises that you can perform on your good leg include the donkey kick and clam shell. Here’s how you can do these exercises correctly:
- Single Leg Donkey Kick: This exercise strengthens the glutes, core, and shoulders. Sit in a table top position. At a moderately slow pace, drive your good leg up toward the ceiling at a moderately slow pace, so that the bottom of your foot is facing the ceiling. While doing this, keep your glutes, shoulders, and core tight. Do three sets of ten. If this exercise becomes too easy, you can add an ankle weight to the raised leg.
- Single Leg Clam Shell: This is a great exercise to strengthen your core and your hip muscles on your good leg while having sciatica. Start by lying on your side of your bad leg. Then, bend both of your legs at a 90 degree angle in front of you. Keeping your foot stacked on the other foot, lift your good leg up slowly and then slowly back down, keeping a tight core and leg as you do this. Do three sets of ten. If this exercise becomes too easy, you can add a band just above the knees.
Looking for More Exercises you Can do to Alleviate and Heal Sciatica?
Our adept team has extensive experience treating patients with sciatica. We can provide many simple, specific exercises and tips to recover from this frustrating condition sooner. Contact us today for an assessment of your condition and a treatment plan that will get you back on track sooner!
About the Author: Dr. Scott Gray is the owner and founder of Back In Motion Sport & Spine Physical Therapy and BIM Fitness and Performance, SW Florida’s premier personal training studio and sports performance training facility.
He is a published author of two best-selling books on Amazon and international presenter on the topics of physical therapy. He is the inventor of a renowned treatment called the Gray Method. In addition to the clinic in Ft. Myers, he is the lead physical therapist for the Mountain Dew Tour