Sciatica is caused by compression on the sciatic nerve, a large nerve that starts outside the base of your spine near your pelvis and travels down the back of your leg from your glute to your foot. Pain and sciatica can occur anywhere along this path or radiate throughout.
“People with sciatica may experience sharp, shooting, or burning pain in those areas,” says Abby Halpin, DPT, PT, physical therapist and owner of Forte Performance and Physical Therapy. They may have altered sensations such as numbness or irritation, explains Dr. Halpin. “Because the sciatic nerve has motor information, the leg may feel heavy, weak, or difficult to move,” he says. “Symptoms can last just a few seconds or be permanent and chronic.”
What causes sciatica?
Dr. Halpin says that sciatica can happen to anyone, but it is more common in people between the ages of 30-50. Symptoms often come on gradually. “It can occur when a person remains in a position that compresses the nerve tissue for a long time, such as sitting, standing, working in awkward positions, or moving frequently for long periods of the day, especially bending or twisting,” he explains. Dr. Halpin.
“Imagine falling asleep on your arm and waking up with numbness or tingling,” he says. “That’s also a type of nerve compression, albeit very short-lived, which is similar to how sciatica can start. Although in the case of sciatica, it’s not just one night of abnormal sleep—it’s usually weeks or many months of being in these cramped positions that are a problem for sciatica patients.”
Dr. Halpin says that reduced physical activity is often the root of acute or sudden sciatica because people who are less active may be less able to withstand movements that strain the back or leg. This, in turn, can cause pain and inflammation of the sciatic nerve. “A typical example is someone who is not very active in their daily life but bends over and lifts a heavy bed one day,” he says. “The lower back and the soft tissues around the nerves are not used to that kind of weight and movement and it will send a signal to the brain that something dangerous may happen. The resulting pain is to get you out of danger but it can cause sciatica that persists until recovery occurs.”
How strength training can reduce sciatica symptoms
Dr. Halpin says that strength training is the best way to build confidence against the types of strain and compression that can cause sciatica. “By doing heavy lifting exercises often, the muscles are better equipped to withstand the compressive loads and can keep the sciatic nerve from excessive pressure,” he says.
Strength training also makes people able to move, sit, and stand in various positions, Dr. Halpin adds. “By having a broad movement ‘vocabulary,’ people can avoid using the same movements or positions all the time, which means spending less time putting pressure on their sciatic nerve in the same way,” he explains. “Resilience and variety are essential to being healthy.”
7 strength training exercises for sciatica pain
1. 90-90 hip lift
This exercise builds strength in your glutes, hamstrings, and core. Start lying on your back on the floor with your feet on the seat of a chair or flat against a wall. Your hips and knees are bent at 90 degrees (hence the name) with your shins parallel to the floor, and your arms extended by your sides, palms pressing down on the floor. From here, without moving your legs, press your heels down to activate the back of your legs. Then, tuck your tailbone and lift it an inch or two off the floor—without lifting your lower back—before lowering it back down. You should feel the back of your thighs (the hamstrings) working. Continue for 30 to 60 seconds.
2. Raising the dead
This is a core exercise that strengthens the entire posterior chain (the back of your body). You will also get a good stretch in your hamstrings, and glutes, lengthening the sciatic nerve. Begin standing holding a weight or any household object, such as a jug of laundry detergent, in both hands in front of your body with your arms straight. Keep a soft bend in your knees as you lean into your hips, keeping your back flat, but allowing your torso to bend forward at a 45-degree angle as you slide the weight down in front of your shins toward the floor. Press through your heels to stand back up, squeezing your glutes up. Complete three sets of 8–10 times.
Rockbacks are one of the best exercises for sciatica and low back pain because they increase the mind-body connection in your core muscles and build strength in the deep abdominal and lower back muscles. These muscles can help protect the spine and nerves. Start by getting down on your hands and knees. Keep your arms straight and press your hips back to hover over your heels while keeping your back straight. Slowly return to your starting position. That’s one representative. Complete three sets of 8-10 reps.
4. Diagonal chops
This is a great strength training exercise for sciatica because it strengthens the entire core while simultaneously mobilizing the spine. Begin standing with your feet hip-width apart and knees gently bent. Hold a weight or household object such as a water bottle with both hands. Reach up diagonally to your right and feel your trunk and left leg (heel up) to rotate to that side. Back to move the weight (with control) down to the outside of your opposite hip, so you’re making a big diagonal sweep across your body. That’s one representative. Complete three sets of 8-10 reps on each side.
5. Goblet squats
Dr. Halpin says that strengthening exercises like this can help ensure your body is stable and able to handle functional movements during daily activities. Start standing with your feet slightly wider than hips. Clasp your hands together in front of your chest. (Optional: Hold the top of the dumbbell vertically with both hands.) Lower yourself by bending your knees and keeping your hips back and down toward your heels. Go as low as you can while keeping your heels on the floor. Aim your elbow towards or inside your knees. Press into your heels to stand up to the top. That’s one representative. Complete three sets of 8-10 reps.
This is a good exercise to strengthen the whole body. It also builds core strength and lower back stability. Dr. Halpin says you can make this exercise more difficult by holding a dumbbell or something heavy. Begin standing with your feet slightly wider than hips, elbows bent, and fists up by your shoulders. Squat deeply while keeping your heels on the floor. Stand back, stretching your arms up as you do so. Bring your hands back down to start the position. That’s one representative. Complete three sets of 8-10 reps.
7. Circular wood
This exercise is great for sciatica because it strengthens your core while not putting too much strain on your lower back. Get down on your hands and knees. Breathe in and round your back slightly while feeling your abs engage. Return each leg to the plank, keeping your hips low and your back rounded. Hold the position for 4-5 breaths, focusing on exhaling slowly and fully with each breath. Repeat 3-4 more times.
How long does it take for sciatica pain to go away?
Dr. Halpin says that many people who have sciatica symptoms often worry that they will have sciatica forever, but recovery is possible. “It can take up to a year for symptoms to fully resolve, but that doesn’t mean that severe symptoms last that long,” he says. “The most chronic symptoms are usually small areas of numbness in the foot or leg. Getting an evaluation from a physical therapist is the best way to find out how and why the symptoms started, and also to make a plan to make changes that will reduce pain and weakness.
Remember, movement is medicine. Staying active can help prevent the nerve stress that often causes this type of pain, and if you’re already experiencing it, the above sciatica strength exercises can help alleviate symptoms.