5 Best Sciatica Stretches for Quick Pain Relief

Relieve Sciatica Pain at Home and Avoid Painkillers

By Coach E

Best Sciatica Stretches for Quick Pain Relief

Sciatic nerve pain is a frequent problem on its own or accompanying low back pain and the unique sciatica stretches you’ll find here can help to eliminate it. 

Sciatica and low back pain afflict the majority of the population worldwide [1] and as many as eight out of ten Americans are prescribed opioid drugs to deal with it.Best sciatica stretches, image of lumbar spine

But are prescription painkillers the best way to relieve sciatic nerve pain?

Large numbers of people become addicted to pain-killing drugs [2] because they’re considered a first-line treatment by doctors, rather than performing techniques like the 5 sciatica stretches you’ll discover in this article.

Continue reading to learn about what causes sciatica and the stretches that will help you avoid dangerous prescription drugs and put you on the road to recovery.

What is Sciatica?

Sciatica is a symptom, not a source of pain.  It consists of pain in the back of the leg that has been described as a cramp or sharp pain that can make walking virtually impossible.

The sciatic nerve originates from the spine, running the length of the leg from buttocks to toes.  It’s responsible for sensation and controlling the posterior aspect of the legs including the hamstrings, calves and bottom of the feet.

If the nerve is impinged at any point, it can cause discomfort, tingling, numbness or weakness anywhere down the back of the leg from glutes to toes.

Sciatic pain can develop gradually over time, or it can happen suddenly.  Typically sciatica will be accompanied by weakness in the affected leg and an unpleasant tingling sensation or numbness that can extend to the toes.

In extreme cases, a pinched sciatic nerve can result in “foot drop” (not being able to lift your foot) or incontinence [3], in which case surgery is the only option to relieve pressure on the nerve.

What Causes Sciatica?

Sciatica is typically the result of a pinched nerve in the lower back; the nerve may be compressed within or adjacent to the spinal canal as it enters the leg.

Several conditions that can cause sciatica:

  • Piriformis Syndrome; this is when the Piriformis muscle, which is deep in the buttocks, becomes too tight or spasms – putting pressure on the sciatic nerve
  • A herniated lumbar disc;  this is the most common cause of sciatica, it happens when the herniated disc puts pressure on the sciatic nerve
  • Spinal stenosis; essentially a narrowing of the intervertebral foramen (the hole the nerve comes out), which places pressure on the sciatic nerve
  • Spondylolisthesis; An actual slippage of one vertebra that moves it out of line with the one adjacent to it

Sciatic nerve - sciatica painful stretches

Both piriformis syndrome and herniated discs cause the majority of sciatic pain.  Let’s examine them more closely.

Piriformis Syndrome

The piriformis muscle is a flat, band-like stabilizer muscle that is deep within your buttocks.  It assists in hip rotation, pelvic stability, and maintaining level hips while running.

If the piriformis is too tight or spasms from overuse, it may impinge on your sciatic nerve causing pain that will be felt in your rear and can radiate both into the lower back and down the leg.

sciatic nerve - exercises for sciatica pain

There are certain risk factors that could predispose you to this condition:

  • Sitting for long periods; extended periods of sitting can cause compression of the sciatic nerve
  • Overuse; repetitive movements like running, walking, and cycling can cause inflammation, spasm, and hypertrophy of the piriformis, increasing the chances of sciatic irritation
  • Trauma; injury to the gluteal area that causes swelling may lead to impingement of the sciatic nerve

herniated disc image - sciatica stretchesHerniated Disc

The spine is composed of over 2 dozen bones called vertebrae; in between, you have rubbery pads of cartilaginous material called discs.  A herniated disc happens when one of those discs leaks material into nearby areas, pressing on nerves locally.

When the herniation is in your lower back, it’s your sciatic nerve that gets pressed.

While most disc herniations will resolve with time and physical therapy, there are instances when surgery is necessary to remove the disc material that’s causing sciatica.

Causes of a Herniated Disc

Unfortunately, there are countless reasons a disc in your lumbar area can herniate.  While improper exercise form and direct trauma cause many cases; a herniation can occur as part of the aging process.

As we age, the material holding the jelly-like center of the disc becomes desiccated and more likely to crack, allowing this material to escape.

What’s important is to do everything you can to spare your lumbar area unnecessary stress:

  • Lift with your legs
  • Keep a neutral back when moving
  • Maintain good posture
  • Practice good exercise form

How Do You Tell the Difference?

Piriformis syndrome and a herniated disc can cause the same sciatic pain, it’s important to know how to tell the difference:

  • Does it hurt when you sit?  Piriformis sufferers will feel pain when sitting, climbing stairs, and squatting
  • Is it tender?  Piriformis syndrome can make the butt area feel tender, applying pressure can cause radiating pain
  • Is your pain centered? Piriformis is mostly felt in the middle of the glute

Piriformis syndrome and lumbar disc herniation represent the majority of sciatica cases, and both will respond well to the stretches in this article.

Sciatica Stretches for Pain Relief

Sciatica stretches don’t mask the symptoms but address the cause of the problem: the impingement of the sciatic nerve.  The stretches you find here may be your long-term solution to managing or even eliminating sciatica leg pain.

Sciatic Nerve Flossing

While it sounds like something related to dental care, sciatic nerve flossing is a fantastic movement for the sciatic nerve that will dissolve adhesions and restore free motion to the nerve [4].

I first learned the sciatic nerve flossing technique from Dr. Stu McGill in his 4th year Low Back Disorders course when I was studying Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo.

I was lucky to have Dr. McGill as a professor and his knowledge helped me with my own low back pain problems and influenced my thinking in a major way.  When you do this technique, do it slowly and very gently because if you’re too aggressive, you could make symptoms worse.

If you have sciatica regularly, I suggest you perform this technique daily for six repetitions per leg, even if your sciatica is unilateral.

Sciatica Stretches - Sciatic Nerve Flossing GIF

  • Begin this movement seated on a chair
  • Now carefully “slump” your back, so you’re facing the floor with your hands on each knee
  • To perform the flossing action, you’ll slowly lift your head to look forward (maintaining a slumped position) while straightening the affected leg in front of you.

Be careful to perform the movement as described; if you look down while lifting the leg up, you’ll irritate the sciatic nerve instead of stretching it, causing more pain instead of relieving it.

Hanging Spinal Decompression

This is one of the most relaxing ways to alleviate sciatic pain.

Spinal decompression involves nothing more complicated than hanging from a chin up bar and allowing the back to stretch using your body weight.

As an added bonus, stretching your spine and back muscles will also improve your flexibility and counteract the effects of gravity on your spine.

  • Begin by grasping a chin-up bar with a shoulder width grip and hang with your feet off the ground.
  • Maintain an entirely passive hang; gravity will do the work for you.

Prone Elastic Band Spinal Decompression

What if you don’t have access to a chinning bar?  The solution is easy and requires one small piece of equipment; a resistance band.

5 Sciatica Stretches - Prone Elastic Spinal Decompression

  • Loop your band (or other stretchy material) around a support column or other solid anchor.
  • Now you’ll lie down in the prone position, grasping the resistance band (stretched, to provide decompression to the spine) with your hands in front of you and allow the tension of the resistance band to do the work gravity would have if you were hanging

Beginner Piriformis Stretch

Stretching your piriformis is one way to relieve sciatica caused by a tight or spasmed piriformis muscle.

This movement starts seated on a chair, maintaining good posture, next:

Sciatica Stretches - Beginner Piriformis Stretch

  • Cross one leg over your knee
  • Now gently push down on the knee of the crossed leg (being careful to maintain good posture) and feel the stretch in your hip

Advanced Piriformis Stretch

There is a more advanced version of this movement that you can use if you can perform it properly that is even more effective:

5 Sciatica Stretches - Advanced Piriformis Stretch

  • Start by kneeling in front of a low chair or even a bench press bench
  • Carefully splace one foot on the chair or bench while turning your knee outward
  • Carefully hold the stretch to loosen the piriformis

Don’t Make it Worse

These five sciatica stretches are the best way to safely relieve the pain of sciatica.  While there are others you can use; you must ensure that you make the correct choice of techniques.  Improper movement or stretching can easily exacerbate the problem and result in a much longer recovery time.

About the Author

Eric Wong (aka Coach E) is the founder of Precision Movement and has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He's been a coach since 2005 and spent his early career training combat athletes including multiple UFC fighters and professional boxers. He now dedicates himself to helping active people eliminate pain and improve mobility. He lives in Toronto (Go Leafs Go!) with his wife and two kids and drinks black coffee at work and IPAs at play. Click here to learn more about Eric.