Exercise for Sciatica: Moves to Try and Which to Avoid

Sciatica is a term used to describe the pain and other symptoms, such as an "electric" sensation, typically affecting one leg. Sciatic nerve pain may be caused by several different conditions, including herniated discs, a tight piriformis muscle, spinal stenosis, or a misaligned sacroiliac joint. It’s possible to have more than one of these conditions at the same time.

Exercise therapy can be used to help decrease symptoms while increasing physical functioning. Unless you have "red flag" symptoms—such as loss of control of a lower extremity or your bowel and bladder—managing your symptoms with exercise can help improve your quality of life with sciatica.

However, some activities can worsen sciatic pain. Here's what you need to know about exercising with sciatica, including which moves can help and which ones can irritate your sciatic nerve.

Exercises to Avoid

Any exercise that causes further pain and symptoms will not helpful for easing sciatic nerve pain. Not only will these movements not provide any benefit, but they may also cause further pain or injury by aggravating nerves and muscles.

There are three stretches in particular that can worsen sciatic nerve pain and are best avoided.

Bent Over Row

The bent over row is a full body integration exercise that targets the arms and back. While the stretch can be beneficial when done properly, it's easy to do the exercise with poor form (i.e. by rounding your back when you pick up a weight bar or weights).

Performing any exercise with improper form puts you at risk for strain or injury, but moves like the bent over row specifically increase your risk for disc herniation— a condition that could cause or worsen symptoms of sciatica.

Double Leg Lift

Exercises that require you to lift both your legs at the same time may aggravate your sciatic nerve. These moves engage your core and are great for strengthening your abdominal muscles and back.

However, it's easy to overdo the stretch, which can exacerbate an already irritated sciatic nerve. One of the most common ways people injure their lower back is by performing a double leg lift when they are really only strong enough for a single leg lift.

Placing too much strain on muscles that aren't yet strong enough to properly support the move you're trying to do can cause or exacerbate sciatic nerve pain.

To avoid causing or worsening sciatic pain, consider whether you're in proper shape before engaging in exercises like leg lifts. When your abs are too weak, the load is referred to your low back, putting you at risk for disc herniation.

Can lift your legs without moving your pelvis or trunk? If you can't, your abs probably aren't yet strong enough to carry the weight of your legs.

Leg Circles

Exercises that involve swinging your leg in a full circle, require you to stretch your hamstring in ways that may be too sudden for an irritated sciatic nerve.

To avoid causing pain or making preexisting pain worse, avoid stretches that engage these muscles in a sudden way. This may include certain Pilates moves, yoga poses, or circuit training workouts.

If you are experiencing sciatic pain, you may also want to avoid high impact sports like football, which can put you at risk for further injury and may strain an already irritated sciatic nerve.

Exercises to Try

With sciatic nerve pain, the lower back and hips are the areas most likely to be affected. Research shows the best way to alleviate sciatica is to perform stretches that externally rotate the hip.

A 2012 study from the University of Southern Denmark found symptom-guided exercises helped improve patient outcomes for people with sciatica.

In fact, many of the patients in the study were able to manage their pain with exercises even in cases that would normally require surgery. 

Here are three exercises that may help manage sciatic nerve pain.

Sitting Spinal Stretch

An irritated sciatic nerve can cause pain and tightness in your hamstrings. Exercises like a sitting spinal stretch can help ease these symptoms without putting you at risk for further irritation.

  1. Start by sitting in a chair with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and firmly on the ground.
  2. Put your hands behind your head. Interweave your fingers so your elbows are out to the side of your head.
  3. Tuck your chin down.
  4. Keeping your elbows out, twist your torso left and bring your right elbow to the inside of the right knee. Do not move your head. Hold for 30 seconds.
  5. Untwist your torso and return to the starting position.
  6. Perform the same movement on the other side. Keep your elbows out and twist your torso to the right as you bring your left elbow to the inside of the left knee. As before, don't move your head and hold for 30 seconds.
  7. Untwist your torso and return to the starting position.
  8. Repeat five times on each side.

Standing Hamstring Stretch

Similar to the seated version, the standing hamstring stretch can also help reduce the tightness and discomfort of leg muscles aggravated by sciatic pain.

A yoga strap or exercise band over your right thigh and under the left foot can make this stretch easier.

  1. Place your right foot on an elevated surface at or below hip level, such as on a chair or ottoman.  
  2. Flex your foot so your toes and leg are straight (it's okay if you need to slightly bend your knee).
  3. Bend your body slightly toward your foot. The further you go, the deeper the stretch will be—but go slowly and don't push to the point of pain.
  4. Release your hip of the raised leg, letting it move down rather than lifting it up. 
  5. Hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds and repeat on the other side. Aim to do five stretches on each side. 

Don't overdo hamstring stretching exercises. Stick to five stretches on each side of your body. Repeated or intense stretching can irritate your sciatic nerve.

Knee to Opposite Shoulder

The knee to opposite shoulder exercise is a simple stretch to relieve sciatic nerve pain. It helps by loosening gluteal and piriformis muscles, which are located deep in the buttocks. When these muscles become inflamed, they press against the sciatic nerve and cause pain and other symptoms.

  1. Lay on your back with your legs extended and feet flexed up.
  2. Bend your right leg and clasp your hands around your knee.
  3. Gently pull your right leg across your body toward your left shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds. Only pull as far as you can comfortably. You should feel the stretch but it shouldn't hurt.
  4. Push your right knee back so your leg returns to the starting position.
  5. Repeat three times on the starting side, then switch legs.

A Word From Verywell

You won't find a one-size-fits-all exercise routine when it comes to managing sciatic nerve pain. Try different exercises to see which ones help you to feel better and be sure to note (and avoid) any that make your pain worse or cause new pain.

If your sciatic nerve pain continues for more than a few months, even if mild, make an appointment to see your doctor. They may refer you to a physical therapist who can help you find relief with an exercise program designed to treat your specific type of sciatic pain and symptoms.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources