Sciatica: Causes and Stretches for Pain Relief

by | Apr 22, 2021 | Fitness Exercises

The first step to knowing how to get rid of your sciatica is understanding its root cause. In this article, we’re going to learn about the most common sciatica causes and stretches for sciatica that you can perform to relieve pain. 

Contrary to what many may know, sciatica isn’t a condition. Instead, it’s a manifestation of symptoms caused by other ailments in your lower back. No one cares to know most of the time since whatever it is, sciatica is painful, and that’s all there is to know.

What is Sciatica?

Also referred to as sciatic neuralgia or sciatic neuropathy, sciatica originated from a Latin word that means “of pain in the hip” and a Greek term that translates to “pain in the hips.” It’s characterized by moderate to severe low back pain that radiates through your left or right leg. Certain movements, such as twisting, leaning, or coughing, make the pain worse. 

The primary cause of sciatica is the compression or inflammation of one or more of the lower back’s five sets of nerve roots. Pain from sciatic nerve compression feels like a dull, sharp, or even burning sensation. It may also be accompanied by recurring pain that begins in the buttocks and moves downward into the back or side of your thigh or leg. 

Your doctor may refer to sciatica as radiculopathy. It refers to an entire range of symptoms produced by the pinching of a nerve root in your spinal column, characterized by pain, tingling, or numbness in your arms and legs.

Getting to Know the Sciatic Nerve

The sciatic nerve consists of five sets of paired nerve roots in the lumbar spine (lower back). It’s the longest and largest nerve in your body, with a width that’s about the same size as your thumb at its thickest point. The sciatic nerve begins at the back of the pelvis (sacrum), passing down the spine, under the buttock, and ending at your foot.

Sciatica happens when one of these nerve roots gets compressed, causing symptoms we mentioned to manifest. In mild cases, sciatica lasts only a few days up to a week before the pain improves. Sciatic pain goes away within four to six weeks, but the numbness and weakness take longer than that to resolve. 

You have chronic sciatica if said symptoms don’t improve within the given timeframe. In this case, you can expect your symptoms to last for at least six months and may require advanced treatment. 

Sciatica Causes

Several spinal disorders cause sciatic nerve compression, namely: 

  • Herniated Disc
  • Degeneration
  • Spinal Tumor 
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Lumbar Spinal Stenosis

Lumbar Bulging Disc or Herniated Disc

Of all the causes responsible for sciatica, disc herniation is the most common, causing up to 90 percent of all cases. Generally, a herniated disc compresses one or more spinal nerve roots that form the sciatic nerve. A lumbar herniated disc can trigger sciatica in two ways:

Direct Compression

Direct compression of the sciatic nerve occurs when the lumbar disc bulges or when the disc’s soft inner material herniates or leaks out through the fibrous outer core and presses against the nerve.

Chemical Inflammation

In this scenario, an acidic chemical irritant from the disc material may leak out and cause inflammation and irritation in the sciatic nerve region.

A herniated disc compresses the sciatic nerve on one side, resulting in symptoms on one of your legs, or the disc may bulge or herniate on both sides, resulting in symptoms on both legs (bilateral sciatica). Although it rarely happens, bilateral sciatica may also be triggered by two adjacent disc segments herniating on either side. 

Degeneration

Tissue degeneration in the lumbar spine is likely to compress or irritate the sciatic nerve. Facet joint degeneration also causes the synovial tissue in the joint’s capsule to become inflamed and bulky.

Meanwhile, the deterioration of vertebral bones may result in irregular bone growths in the form of bone spurs or osteophytes. These abnormally bulky tissues in the lumbar spine cause compression of one or more sciatic nerve roots. Finally, degenerated intervertebral discs secrete inflammatory proteins that cause sciatic nerve inflammation.

Spinal Tumors

Spinal tumors are uncharacteristic growths that are either benign or malignant. Malignant tumors are typically metastatic, which means they spread to the spine from another location in your body. On the other hand, benign tumors in the spine can compress the sciatic nerve. Some of the more common types include: 

  • Giant cell tumors (GCT) 

GCTs are aggressive bone tumors that typically target bones around a joint, posing a significant risk to the spine’s 364 joints.

  • Osteoid osteomas 

These tumors located in the bone are usually tiny and don’t grow in size once formed. They may, however, cause unintended bone formation in the affected region or osteoid bone formation around the tumor itself.

  • Aneurysmal bone cysts (ABC)

ABCs are not tumors, as the name implies, but rather blood-filled cysts that tend to develop rapidly.

Spondylolisthesis

This condition occurs when a minor stress fracture causes one vertebral body to fall forward on one another. For instance, the L5 vertebra can slip forward over the S1 vertebra. Sciatica may be caused by nerve compression following the disc space collapse, fracture, and forward slipping of the vertebral body. Spondylolisthesis that causes bilateral sciatica happens more commonly in younger adults.

Lumbar Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the spinal canal and is a relatively common cause of sciatica, especially for adults older than age 60. 

These sciatica-causing conditions may develop gradually over time or spontaneously due to trauma or physical stress injury. Direct damage to the sciatic nerve may also occur due to a car accident, sports injury, or a fall. Physical stress injuries, such as weightlifting, can result in conditions such as spondylolisthesis and herniated discs.

Stretches for Sciatica 

According to strength and conditioning specialists, the best way to ease most sciatica pain is to perform stretches that will externally rotate the hip to provide some relief. 

The following are several stretches for sciatica that fit such billing:

  • Reclining pigeon pose
  • Forward pigeon pose
  • Sitting pigeon pose
  • Sitting spinal stretch
  • Standing hamstring stretch
  • Knee to the opposite shoulder

Reclining Pigeon Pose

Pigeon pose is a standard yoga pose that helps loosen up the hips. This stretch comes with a variety of variations. The first of which is a version for starters called the reclining pigeon pose.  At the onset of your treatment, you should attempt the reclining pigeon pose first. 

  • Put your right leg up to a right angle when lying on your back. Lock your fingers by clasping both hands behind your thigh.
  • Place your right ankle on top of your left knee as you lift your left leg.
  • Hold this position for a few seconds. Relax as you stretch the tiny piriformis muscle, which causes pain when it becomes inflamed and pressed against the sciatic nerve.
  • Repeat all the steps. This time, work on your other leg.

Forward Pigeon Pose

  • Begin the exercise on all fours. 
  • Pick up your right leg and position it on the ground, in front of you.  Take note that your lower leg should be horizontal to your body while on the floor. Your right foot should be in front of your left knee, and your right knee should remain to the right.
  • Stretch your left leg all the way behind you on the floor, with the top of your foot on the ground and your toes pointing back.
  • Gradually shift your body weight from your arms to your legs, allowing your legs to support your weight. Place your hands on either side of your legs and sit up straight.
  • Take a deep breath. Lean forward over your front leg as you exhale. As much as possible, support your weight using your arms.
  • Repeat the steps on the other side.

Seated Pigeon Pose

  • Stretch your legs out straight in front of you while sitting on the floor. 
  • Bend your right leg so that your right ankle rests on top of your left knee.
  • Lean forward and extend your upper body toward your thigh.
  • Hold this pose for 15 to 30 seconds to thoroughly stretch your glutes and lower back. 
  • Repeat on the other side.

Sitting Spinal Stretch

Sciatica pain occurs when vertebrae in your spine compress—performing stretches for sciatica, such as this one, aids in creating space in your spine to relieve the sciatic nerve of pressure. 

  • Sit on the floor, your legs straight out, and your feet flexed upward.
  • Bend your right knee and put your foot flat on the floor outside the opposite knee.
  • Put your left elbow on the outside of your right knee to help you turn your body to the right.
  • Hold for 30 seconds, repeat the steps three times, then switch sides. 

Standing Hamstring Stretch

Perform this stretch to relieve sciatica-induced pain and tightness in your hamstring.

  • Place your right foot on an elevated surface to make it level with your hips. You may use a chair, ottoman, or a step on your staircase. Straighten your toes and leg by flexing your foot. Maintain a slight bend in your knee if it seems to hyperextend.
  • Slightly bend your body forward toward your foot. The stretch deepens the further you go. Take care not to strain yourself to the point that you begin to feel pain. 
  • Release the hip of your elevated leg downward rather than raising it higher. If you need assistance lowering your hip, wrap a yoga strap or long workout band around your right thigh and under your left foot.
  • Hold for a minimum of 30 seconds, then repeat the steps on the opposite side.

Knee to Opposite Shoulder

One of the most basic stretches for sciatica, the knee to opposite shoulder helps relieve pain by loosening your gluteal and piriformis muscles, which can become inflamed and strain against the sciatic nerve.

  • Lie on your back, your legs extended, and feet flexed upward.
  • Bend your right leg and wrap your hands around your knee.
  • Move your right leg across your body toward your left shoulder, gently. Keep it in place for 30 seconds. Remember to pull your knee only as far as it will comfortably allow. You should experience a comforting stretch in your muscle instead of pain.
  • Return your leg to its starting position by pushing your knee.
  • Finish three reps, then repeat the steps after switching legs. 

Key Takeaway

There’s no such thing as “one-size-fits-all exercise” if you’re suffering from sciatic nerve pain. Although this is the case, the first thing you can do to deal with sciatica should definitely be physical therapy. Apart from being active and educational, the primary goal of stretches for sciatica is to restore your mobility and functionality. 

To know more about other types of exercise routines, including piriformis stretches, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us today.

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