Sciatica exercises come in many different forms, but the last thing you need when you’re in pain is to have to learn a complicated exercise routine. But using exercise to alleviate sciatica doesn’t have to be difficult. Getting relief can be as simple as doing just one exercise and doing it frequently until such time as the pain is gone or at least much improved.
To figure out what exercise will be of most benefit, it is important to try to distinguish whether you have sciatica from a lumbar disc bulge /herniation, or whether you have a condition called “piriformis syndrome”, which produces symptoms very similar to disc-related sciatica but is caused by contraction of the piriformis muscle in the buttock area.
An easy method to help you determine what the problem is can be done by doing a couple of tests while sitting in a firm chair. In the sitting position, try straightening your knee on the painful side, so that your leg is parallel to the floor. If this increases your symptoms, chances are you have true sciatica related to a disc problem.
The second test is to bend your leg to pull the knee toward your chest. Begin by first bringing the knee on the painful side toward the shoulder on the same side. Then release the leg slightly and pull the knee toward the opposite shoulder. If pulling the knee toward the opposite shoulder increases the pain significantly more than pulling it toward the same side shoulder, chance are you have piriformis syndrome. It should be noted that it is possible to have both true sciatica and piriformis syndrome at the same time.
Once you determine whether you have true sciatica or piriformis syndrome, or both, you can usually get considerable relief from just a single exercise for either condition (two exercises if you have both).
For true sciatica, most people will find relief through the basic McKenzie extension exercise (named for physical thearapist Robin McKenzie). This exercise is performed by lying face down on a firm surface and then propping yourself up on your elbows, creating an increase in the curve of the lower back. Getting into this position may be painful at first, but within about 30 seconds, most people will notice a decrease in the severity or the range of the sciatica, or both. A positive sign is when the symptoms furthest from the spine decrease.
As long as the symptoms are decreasing furthest from the spine, the exercise described is beneficial, even if the symptoms closer to the spine seem to increase at first (they’ll usually improve with repetition of the exercise over time). I suggest you remain in this position for a couple of minutes and then take a break by either just lying flat, or by getting up and walking for at least a few minutes in between the exercise repetitions in order to avoid developing a lot of tightness in the low back muscles.
For piriformis syndrome, you can do a simple stretch of the piriformis muscle. I recommend you do this by lying on your back, pulling your knee on the painful side toward the same side shoulder for a few seconds, then partially releasing the leg and then pulling your knee toward the opposite shoulder. Hold this stretch for about 10 seconds at a time, then carefully release your leg for a a few seconds before repeating the stretch.
Whether you need the McKenzie extension exercise, or the piriformis stretch, or both, the sciatica exercises work best when repeated frequently – up to several times per day while you are having signficant symptoms.
When the symptoms have subsided, it is extremely important to learn what sciatica exercises you can do to prevent the symptoms from returning in the future. Don’t be fooled! Just because the symptoms go away, it doesn’t mean that everything is back to normal. All too often, sciatica sufferers go from one episode of pain to the next, with episodes becoming more severe and more frequent over time, because they fail to manage the problem correctly so you can avoid the common problem of developing chronic pain and disability.