The Low-Back Side-Glide Exercise for Sciatica

A woman sitting down with severe back pain

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The side-gliding exercise is a maneuver that you can perform for your low back to help treat back pain or sciatica that is located on one side of your back. The exercise is one that is commonly used by physical therapists who practice the McKenzie Method.

If you have low back pain or sciatica, then you may be referred to physical therapy to help decrease your pain and improve your overall mobility and function. Your physical therapist will prescribe exercises and teach you how to sit with correct posture to help you manage your problem.

While therapeutic modalities like heat or ice may temporarily feel good, exercise and postural correction are your main tools to care for your problems yourself. By learning the correct things to be doing (and what you should not be doing), you can manage your problem independently. That way, if your back pain strikes again in the future, you'll know what to do.

Is This Exercise Right for Me?

Extension exercises work best for disc herniations or lumbar radiculopathy. For people with spinal stenosis or people with general spinal instability, these exercises may not be effective or could be painful. If you’re unsure, ask your physical therapist if extension-based exercises are right for you and your condition.

Progression of Exercises

Your physical therapist can help you decide on the best exercises for your specific condition. He or she can also help you progress through your exercises appropriately. In general, if you have a sudden onset of low back pain, you should perform the emergency back pain exercises. These exercises involve lying flat on your stomach, propping up on your elbows, and performing press-ups.

If your back pain is on one side of your back or down one leg, you should be monitoring your symptoms to see how they change while you are exercising. If your pain is centralizing, or decreasing in your leg and thigh and moving closer to your spine, then you are performing the correct exercise for your condition.

If press-ups are helping but are not fully centralizing your pain, or if they are not effective in managing your pain, you may wish to try the press-ups with your hips off-center. This helps to place a sideways force against your back to help centralize your pain and restore your motion.

If you are still not having success in decreasing, centralizing, or abolishing your pain with the press-up with hips off-center, then it is time to move onto the side-glide exercise.

How to Perform This Exercise

  1. Stand with your body perpendicular to a wall with your feet about 12-18 inches away from the wall. The painful side of your back or leg should be away from the wall.
  2. Bend your elbow that is close to the wall and tuck it into your side.
  3. Lean your shoulder against the wall.
  4. Place your hand against your hip that is away from the wall.
  5. Slowly press your hips towards the wall so that they glide under your rib cage.
  6. Hold the end position for 2-3 seconds, then slowly release. Be sure to not swing your hips away from the wall. Just allow your body to relax so your hips slide back to the starting position.
  7. With each repetition, try to push your hips a little closer to the wall.
  8. Once you complete 10 repetitions of the side-gliding exercise, step away from the wall without shifting your hips away from the wall. Keep your pelvis directly under you as you move away from the wall.

Remember to monitor your symptoms as you perform the side-gliding exercise. Centralization of your pain to your back is the desired response. If your pain is decreasing in your leg and thigh and is increasing in your low back, continue with the side-gliding exercise.

Once your leg pain is centralized, you may need to discontinue the side-gliding exercise and return to performing press-ups straight away to fully abolish your low back pain. Your physical therapist can help guide you so you understand the proper exercises to do.

What If the Side Glide Helps, but Progress Slows?

If you are performing the side-glide exercise and your symptoms do not fully centralize, you may need to attempt a different exercise to get relief. The exercise progression, in this case, would be to perform the lumbar flexion and rotation stretch. Again, a visit to your local physical therapist can help you decide which exercise is best to do for your specific condition.

The lumbar side-glide exercise is a great way to attempt to self-treat your low back pain or leg pain that may be coming from your lumbar spine. It is a simple exercise to do, as it can be performed anywhere a wall is present.

If you have low back pain or sciatica and you wish to self-treat your problem, give the side-glide exercise a try. Monitor your symptoms for centralization, and check-in with your doctor and physical therapist regularly to make sure the exercise is the correct one for you to do.

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Article Sources
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  2. Davies CL, Blackwood CM. The centralization phenomenon: It's role in the assessment and management of low back painBCMJ. 2004;46(7):348-352.

  3. WSCC Clinics. Directional preference protocol: Centralizing low back and leg pain. Updated May 2008.

  4. Orthopaedic Specialists of North Carolina. Lumbar flexion exercises.

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