Millions of Americans suffer from sciatica, pain that radiates down one or both legs, starting at the lower back. And in fact, four in 10 people are likely to develop sciatica at some point in their life, with causes ranging from degenerative changes in the spine to disc herniation to poor core strength or even just tight muscles.
But there’s good news. Practices such as yoga and Pilates can resolve the painful condition without surgery…though it helps to pinpoint the cause first. “It’s complicated,” says Albert Kaplan, DPT, of OrthoCarolina Mooresville. “There is no single exercise that alleviates all sciatic pain. An exercise that alleviates one person’s pain may aggravate another’s.” In short, for each possible cause of sciatica, there are corresponding treatments.
So go ahead and diagnose the source of your sciatica with a qualified physician first. Then refer back to this list of 10 expert-recommended stretches for sciatica that can also help with back and hip pain:
1. Pigeon Pose
Yoga instructor and founder of Kalimukti Yoga, Calli De La Haye, recommends pigeon pose as the best for sciatic pain. She says it opens up the hips and groin while lengthening the thigh muscles.
Directions: Begin on all fours or in Downward Dog. Bring one knee forward, placing it right behind the same-side wrist. Take the foot on that leg toward the other wrist, trying to get your shin as parallel to the front of your yoga mat as possible (but don’t push it!). Slide your back leg straight behind you. Try to square your hips toward the mat before leaning forward as much as is comfortable for you. If you find that one of your hips pops up, you can always slide a block, blanket or bolster beneath it! Repeat on other side.
2. Spinal Twist
Loren Fishman, M.D., yogi and physician at Columbia University, recommends a variety of twists for sciatica resulting from piriformis syndrome. Sitting, standing and prone twists can all be effective.
Directions: Lay flat on your back with your legs bent, soles of the feet flat on the mat, and your arms open wide to a T. Cross your right leg over your left thigh, shift your hips to the right, and slowly allow your knees to fall to the left while looking over your right shoulder. Relax into the twist and hold for three minutes. Repeat on the other side.
3. Knees to Chest Pose
Yoga instructor Miriam Amselem recommends holding Yin Yoga poses like this one to relax the muscles of the lower back and hips. “This pose increases circulation and relieves tension in the back and sciatic nerve,” she says.
Directions: Lay flat on your back and hug your knees to your chest. Keep your head relaxed down. Rock from side to side for an additional lower back massage.
4. Child’s Pose
According to Amselem, this relaxing pose soothes the lower back and relieves tension and pain in the area.
Directions: Get on all fours, with your wrists directly beneath your shoulders and your knees directly beneath your hips. Bring your feet together as you open your knees to the width of your mat. Then take your glutes back to your heels, bring the head down to the mat and stretch the arms forward.
5. Cat and Cow Pose
This active pose stretches the hips and the entire spine.
Directions: Start on all fours with the hands aligned directly under the shoulders and knees aligned under the hips. Once in position, start with the Cat pose, arching your spine, bringing it toward the ceiling, as you pull your abs in and up and let the head drop down. From there, shift into Cow pose by bringing the head back up and dropping the belly toward the mat, your chest drawing forward, your shoulders drawing back and your tailbone pointing up and back. Alternate moving from Cat to Cow four to five times.
6. Extended Triangle Pose
This pose lengthens the back, opens the hips and stretches the hamstrings.
Directions: Stand at the front of your mat and take a big step back so the feet are wide. The back foot should be parallel to the back of your mat—or facing slightly forward—while the front foot should be facing forward. Reach your arms in opposite directions, at shoulder height. Then, shifting your hips back, reach the front arm forward and then down onto the shin, foot or floor. Reach the top arm straight up and gaze toward your fingertips. Repeat on the other side.
7. Figure Four Stretch
Tiffany Cruikshank, L.A.c., MAOM, RYT, founder of Yoga Medicine, says the figure four stretch—also known as reclined pigeon—can help release the muscles around the low back and hips that can compress and irritate the sciatic nerve. This pose is also a good option if you find that traditional pigeon pose is too much of a strain on your knees.
Directions: Lie flat on your back, with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the mat. Cross your right ankle over your left knee. Clasp your hands behind your left thigh and draw both knees toward you, with the left knee reaching gently in the direction of the left shoulder. Repeat on the other side.
Christa Gurka, an orthopedic physical therapist, recommends extension-based and abdominal-strengthening Pilates exercises like the Swan (also known as High Cobra in the yoga world) and the Single Leg Stretch.
Directions: Lie on your belly with your hands resting under your shoulders. Gently push your hands down into the floor while lifting your head, neck, shoulders and spine up into an extension, arching your back. Make sure you’re drawing your core muscles up and in. If you feel any strain in the lower back, press your pubic bone into the mat.
9. Single Leg Stretch
Directions: Lying on your back, pull the right knee into your chest and reach the left leg straight out in front of you, letting it hover a few inches off the ground. Lift your head, neck and shoulders to the tips of your shoulder blades. Begin to alternate your legs back and forth pulling one knee into your chest as you reach the other leg out. Remember to breathe slowly as you alternate.
If sciatica results from a herniated disc, Fishman says arching and stretching the back in poses like Bridge is best.
Directions: Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor, taking them close to your bottom and as wide apart as your hips. Bring your arms down by your sides. Lift your hips up off the mat slowly, pushing into your feet, rising vertebra by vertebra. Open your chest toward the ceiling. After taking a few breaths in this position, slowly lower down.
11. Decompression Breathing
Developed by Eric Goodman, M.D., this method focuses on breathing into the front and back of the lungs to decompress the spine, elevate the rib cage away from the pelvis and relieve pressure from the low spine and pelvis. Detailed directions are available here.