Sciatica is painful, debilitating and very common.
Whether you are suffering with sciatica right now, have had an issue in the past (like I have) or want to avoid ever having to deal with it, then this is the article for you.
With a combination of general understanding, stretching and kettlebell exercises you can relieve, eradicate or prevent sciatica from returning again.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, the following should be used with caution and if in any doubts consult with a medical professional.
What is sciatica?
Sciatica is a general term used to describe an irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve which results in pain radiating from the lower back and buttocks all the way down the back of the leg to the foot.
Pain can be severe making walking and even sleeping a problem or mild with tingling or numbness.
Symptoms can usually be exaggerated by straightening and lifting the leg or forward bending.
The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body (size of your little finger) and exits at the lower back and runs from the back of the pelvis, across the buttocks and all the way down to the feet.
Pain can be experienced anywhere along the sciatic nerve from the lower back to the foot. Often as the issue improves the pain will creep back up the leg and conversely as it worsens it will radiate further down the leg.
What triggers or causes sciatica?
The sciatic nerve roots originate at the lumbar spine and sacrum L4 – S3.
The exit gap between the vertebra is very narrow leaving them vulnerable to any damage by a shifting sacrum or vertebrae or bulging of the vertebral discs.
The sciatic nerve continues its travels across the buttocks and behind (occasionally through) the piriformis muscle before travelling down the back of the leg.
Another common cause of sciatica is a tight or inflamed piriformis muscle which in turn irritates or pinches the sciatic nerve.
So the two main areas of concern are the lower back and the deep hip rotator buttock muscles the Piriformis.
Common sciatica causes include:
- Prolonged sitting and bad posture
- Sports and poor exercise technique
- Weak core and stabilising muscles
- Joint inflammation
- Stenosis (narrowing of the nerve canal)
- Piriformis muscle tightness
- Overweight causing added pressure on the lower back
- Degeneration of discs through age
Sciatica can be caused by just one of the above or a combination of many, for example, being overweight with weak core muscles and spending a lot of time sitting.
How long does sciatica last?
Symptoms and recovery from sciatica will vary drastically from one person to the next.
Some people can suffer from debilitating pain and numbness from the buttocks, down the hamstrings to the foot and others may have just mild tingling in the buttocks.
Pain can last for a matter of hours, days, weeks or even longer.
Taking action is certainly better than just bed rest and using the correct exercises should cause the pain to recede back up the leg.
Benefits of exercise for sciatica
There is no denying that exercise and stretching is good for preventing and alleviating sciatica pain.
The benefits of exercise include:
- Pumping blood and nourishing the joints
- Rehydrating and improving vertebral disc health
- Creating more joint space and reducing sciatic nerve irritation
- Reducing muscle tightness and keeping soft tissue pliable
- Increasing supportive and stabilising strength around the joints
No exercise should cause sciatica so if when performing an exercise it brings on sciatica or makes your symptoms worse then stop.
Exercises like the bent over row can be a common causes of sciatica due to poor technique or inadequate core strength to perform the exercise effectively.
Discover more: 5 bodyweight core exercises every beginner should master
The sciatica pain relief and prevention program
Below I have listed 9 exercises and stretches for alleviating any existing sciatic pain and then preventing the sciatica from returning.
For immediate pain relief you can apply ice for 15 minutes to your lower back. Use an ice pack and don’t apply the ice directly onto your skin.
Ice is better than heat as it reduces inflammation rather than increasing blood flow which could make the symptoms worse.
9 Stretches and exercises for sciatica
There is 1 foam roller exercise below, 5 stretches and 3 kettlebell exercises.
The objective of the foam roller and stretches is to create space around the sciatic nerve and loosen tight muscles.
You should avoid any hamstring stretches at this stage as these can pull and irritate the sciatic nerve further.
Be sure to concentrate on your breathing and DO NOT hold your breath. Long deep breaths will stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system and help your body accept the stretch.
1 Piriformis Foam Roller
The piriformis is a deep hip rotator muscle.
Tightness of the piriformis can cause pressure on the sciatic nerve which runs beneath this muscle.
Using a foam roller to self massage and loosen the piriformis can be very beneficial.
Sit the offending buttock muscle on the foam roller and gently rock backwards and forwards.
You can intensify the massage by placing the piriformis on stretch by crossing the tight side over the other.
For an even more intense massage you can roll your piriformis muscle on a tennis ball and stop when you find the sweet spot (trigger point) and allow the pain to slowly dissipate.
Be careful: As you are fundamentally going to be sitting on your sciatic nerve you need to be careful as this may intensify the pain. If the pain is bearable then the rewards will be worth it.
How much? Little and often is best, 60 seconds each time and spaced out throughout the day is the most effective.
2 Cobra Stretch
The cobra stretch can give quick relief for many people suffering from sciatica.
When bending forwards the soft intervertebral discs are pushed backwards, this can ultimately lead to a bulging disc and pressure being applied and irritating the sciatic nerve.
Working through variations of the Cobra exercise can give quick relief and also act as a preventive exercise by slowly coaxing the vertebral disc forwards again.
Acute sciatica pain sufferers should begin by lying face down, if this causes pain then pillows can be added under the hips just to lift them slightly. As time progresses gradually remove the pillows as the pain subsides.
The next progression is to lift the chest off the floor and onto just your elbows and forearms, fingertips pointing forwards.
Keep your pelvis against the floor at all times. Breath deeply and allow your hips and back to relax.
Once the elbow variation feels comfortable you can progress to the full on cobra position as illustrated above. Gradually move your hands from straight out in front of you to directly underneath your shoulders to intensify the stretch.
As with all these stretches and exercises monitor your pain levels. If it exaggerates the pain then stop. If the pain subsides and starts to recede further up the leg then continue.
How many? Hold the top position for up to 60 seconds and then lower. You can also do sets of 10 seconds up and then down again. Repeat throughout the day.
3 Knees to Chest Stretch
The knees to chest exercise and stretch is one of my personal favourites and works well not only for sciatica but also for so many other lower back pain issues.
By pulling the knees to the chest in a very relaxed and controlled manner allows the lower facets of the spine to open up, decompress and create space.
Many acute lower back pain issues can be quickly relieved by performing this simple exercise when almost all others are troublesome.
Lie on your back, bend your knees and individually lift one knee and then the other knee up towards your chest.
Take hold of each knee with your hands and cross your ankles over.
Keep your body totally relaxed and your head and shoulders down on the floor.
Next gradually rock your knees towards your chest slowly and softly feeling your lower back start to open up.
The movement needs to be soft and gradual so everything is allowed to relax.
You can progress the exercises to soft circles moving in towarads your chest, change directions every now and again.
How many? Perform for at least 60 seconds, progressing to 5 minutes as you really start to relax.
4 Pigeon Lunge Stretch
The deep hip rotator muscle the piriformis can often cause sciatica issues by being too tight and affecting the nearby sciatic nerve.
Stretching and keeping the piriformis pliable can help take pressure off the sciatic nerve and reduce and prevent sciatica.
There are many variations of deep hip rotator stretches but I particularly like the pigeon lunge even though it can be a little advanced for some people.
Beginners can perform a simple piriformis stretch by sitting in a chair, crossing one leg over so the ankle rests on the knee and then allowing that knee to fall towards the floor. Leaning forwards once in this position will help intensify the stretch.
The pigeon lunge involves crossing one leg underneath your body and then leaning forwards onto the crossed under leg. You can adjust the intensity of the stretch by applying more or less pressure onto the leg by leaning forwards or sitting back.
How many? Relax into the stretch for up to 60 seconds on each side.
Watch a Video of the Pigeon Lunge stretch below:
5 Butterfly Stretch
Most people are tight through the hips and groin and using the butterfly stretch is a great way to open up these areas and again create space for the lower back.
The butterfly stretch is also an excellent way to open up the back without the need to put the hamstrings on heavy stretch.
Sit on the floor and bring the soles of your feet together. Aim to create a diamond shape with your legs rather than pulling them in too close to your groin.
If you find this position too uncomfortable then try sitting on a cushion so your legs are lower than your hips.
Sit tall and DO NOT round your back.
Gradually lean forwards from your navel to intensify the stretch.
Don’t bounce the knees or push them towards the floor just relax and let gravity do all the work.
Breathe deeply gradually moving forwards and backwards to intensify the stretch.
You can also practice this exercise with your back flat against a wall.
How many? Try holding the stretch for 60 seconds or longer taking in nice deep breaths and learning to relax.
6 Sitting Rotational Stretch
Our final stretch is a rotational movement that mobilises stiff spinal segments while at the same time stretches out those deep hip rotators.
As with all these stretches the objective is to loosen and create space so the potential of sciatic nerve irritation is reduced.
Those with generally tight hips and stiff lower backs will find this exercise particularly challenging but well worth the effort.
Sit on the floor with your legs out in front of you. Pull one leg in towards you and cross it over the other at the knee.
Next rest your opposite elbow on the outside of your knee and look as far behind you as possible.
If you can place both hands on the floor you are doing well.
Breathe deeply as you hold the stretch.
How many? Pay particular attention to the side that feels more restricted. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds while breathing deeply.
Kettlebell exercises for sciatica
If you are suffering with acute sciatica pain then performing kettlebell exercises is not recommended at that time and could make matters worse.
However, once you have recovered from any sciatica pain practicing the following kettlebell exercises can help prevent any further sciatica pain reoccurring.
Be careful, take it slow and if any of these exercises feel like they are starting to aggravate your sciatica then back off and readdress your technique.
7Kettlebell Goblet Squats
Any kind of deep squatting based movement helps open up, lubricate and pump nutrients into the spine.
Shallow squatting does not have the same effect as the tailbone is not allowed to travel underneath the hips.
Squatting on a regular basis will strengthen the legs, hips and back muscles while at the same time opening up the hips.
As the spine is slightly more vulnerable at the bottom of a deep squat you need to be a good squatter before adding a kettlebell to this exercise.
Practice the deep squat by holding onto a pole, post or door frame. Allow the hips to drop nice and low as if trying to sit your buttocks onto the floor while keeping your heels on the ground.
Allow the knees to open and not cave inwards.
Using a kettlebell acts as a nice counterbalance to the exercise and the elbows can be used at the bottom of the squat to push the knees outwards.
How many? Practice sets of 10 reps starting with only bodyweight and when strong enough adding a kettlebell.
Discover more: 7 kettlebell squat variations you need to know
The kettlebell swing can radically improve your lower back and sciatica issues providing you perform the exercise correctly.
I’ve had countless reports from clients that have confirmed how practicing the kettlebell swing on a regular basis has eliminated their lower back pain and prevented future sciatica problems.
The kettlebell swing is a full body exercise but fundamentally strengthens the back of the body (posterior chain) from head to toe.
Not only does the kettlebell swing help to strengthen the lower back but it also pumps nutrients into the joints and improves the general health of the vertebra.
The kettlebell swing is based on the deadlift movement pattern which requires a flat back during the exercise and lifting or swinging comes from the hips.
Stand tall during each swing, squeezing the buttocks and abs tight at the top and not leaning backwards.
Technique is very important because poorly performed swings can aggravate the lower back so start slow and seek some coaching if necessary.
How many? Start with sets of 10 repetitions working up to 10 x 10 with a 30 seconds rest in between sets.
9Kettlebell Turkish Get Ups
The kettlebell Turkish Get Up is a full body exercise that will strengthen your core muscles to protect your lower back while at the same time improving your spinal mobility.
There are no muscles or joints left untouched by the Turkish get up.
Your ability to move from the lying down position with a kettlebell overhead to a standing and then back down to a lying down position will test all your movement skills.
As a sciatica suffer this kettlebell exercise helps to improve the health of the spine while at the same time developing supportive strength for the lower back.
During the Get Up focus on the areas that feel restricted or most challenging, these will be the areas that need the most work.
Maybe your core strength is lacking during the sitting up stage at the beginning or perhaps side bending is difficult as you move to standing.
If you find a challenging stage then repeat it a few times until it becomes easier.
Beginners should practice the full movement without a kettlebell. Add load once the exercise feels natural and comfortable.
Be careful as certain parts of the exercise can stretch the sciatic nerve so if you feel any discomfort stop the exercise and work on the stretches above instead.
How many? Practice full repetitions changing sides after each rep. 10 total reps is good goal.
Discover more: Ultimate guide to the Kettlebell Turkish Get Up
Watch a video the Kettlebell Turkish Get Up exercise below:
How to use these sciatica stretches and exercises
Every case of sciatica is different so some exercises may work well for you and others may be a little too advanced.
Start at the beginning and see how many stretches you can complete. Which ones help and which ones make matters worse?
The ultimate goal is for the sciatica to recede up the leg towards the buttocks and into the back, so if a stretch takes the pain from the leg to the buttocks then that’s positive progress.
Once you are pain free you can gradually start practicing the 3 kettlebell exercises, 3 times per week. If they cause any flare ups or irritate your sciatic nerve then stop and readdress your technique.
The stretches should be continued on a regular basis, a daily evening schedule is ideal.
Start a small daily stretching routine like this:
- Piriformis foam roller (60 seconds)
- Cobra stretch (60 seconds)
- Knees to chest (60 seconds)
- Pigeon lunge stretch (60 seconds on tight side)
- Butterfly stretch (60 seconds)
- Sitting rotational stretch (60 seconds both sides)
Fundamentally, prevention is always better than the cure so improve your lifestyle choices too. Eat healthier, sit less, and move more.
Conclusion to sciatica stretches and exercises
Sciatica is painful and debilitating but ultimately curable and preventable.
Sciatica is generally caused by either compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve at the base of the spine or via compression by the piriformis muscle in the buttocks.
A daily schedule of stretching can help loosen and open up space at the lower back and pelvis to ease pressure on the sciatic nerve.
Once sciatic pain has quietened down then kettlebell exercises performed correctly can help strengthen and mobilise the back and hips to prevent any future episodes.
Use all these stretches and exercises with caution, listening to your body and using more of what works and less of what doesn’t.
Taking a closer look at your lifestyle choices will also help prevent any sciatica issues from returning.
Take care and best of luck.
Have you tried any of these sciatica stretches and exercises? Let me know below….