Stretch and Strengthen: Using Yoga for Sciatica as a Treatment

Yoga for Sciatica
Stretch and Strengthen: Using Yoga for Sciatica as a Treatment 9

Can yoga help with sciatica? Sciatica is back pain condition that affects about 10% of people at some point in their lives. As many with back pain know, it is more than just a physical ailment and can negatively affect quality of life. Yoga can be a safe and effective way to ease pain caused by sciatica and help prevent the condition from reappearing.

What is sciatica?

Sciatica, or lumbar radiculopathy, is not a specific diagnosis, but, rather, the term for a set of symptoms caused by the inflammation, pinching or compression of a nerve in the lower back.

This usually appears with an underlying injury or medical condition. Named for the sciatic nerve that runs from the lumbar spine area to the feet, sciatica is characterized by sharp, intense shooting pains that can begin in the lower back and travel into the leg or foot. There may also be numbness, tingling or weakness in the leg.

The symptoms experienced with sciatica can vary from person to person, and they may differ based on the underlying cause. The sciatic nerve is the longest and thickest nerve in the body. It has five nerve roots, two in the lumbar spine region and three in the sacral spine region, and further separates to both the right and left sides of the body. Because of this, sciatica usually affects only one leg.

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Causes of sciatica

Sciatica occurs when another body structure makes contact with the nerve, causing irritation. Most often, the cause is a slipped or herniated intervertebral disc. Intervertebral discs are cartilage pads that sit between each spinal vertebra and absorb shock and assist in spinal mobility.

The discs consist of a gelatinous center ring surrounded by a tougher, more fibrous ring. Injury or weakness may cause the center ring to protrude through the outer ring. This can cause compression or pinching of nearby spinal nerves. If the injured disc is near the sciatic nerve, sciatica may occur.

Disc injury can occur acutely during certain sports and exercise. Weightlifting in particular can put stress and pressure on the spinal area, which can lead to disc injury. Additionally, activities that involve twisting or turning can make it more likely for a disc injury to occur.

Sciatica can also occur due to degenerative disc disease or spinal spondylosis. These conditions are changes that happen over time to the vertebrae, causing them to shorten or narrow due to normal wear and tear. As this happens, sciatic nerve roots can become pinched or compressed as they leave the spine.  

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Yoga and sciatica

In less severe cases, sciatica can be treated and even prevented with exercise and stretching. Yoga is an activity that can both strengthen and lengthen muscles, decompresses the spine and encourages circulation of lymphatic and synovial fluid, making it an excellent option for sciatica treatment and prevention.

Strengthening the abdominals, back and glutes can be an effective way to relieve or prevent sciatic nerve pain. If you are already dealing with sciatica due to a specific disc injury, it may be necessary to target the strengthening to the muscles near the nerve root of your injury. In most instances, strengthening the general area will still be beneficial.

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Muscles of the back

The erector spinae, quadratus lumborum and latissimus dorsi are three of the muscle groups that help stabilize the lower back. The erector spinae are a group of muscles that run parallel to the entire length of the vertebral column. When contracted, these muscles straighten the spine, such as when standing in mountain pose. If contracted on only one side, the erector spinae can produce a rotation or twisting movement toward the contracted side.

The quadratus lumborum is a deep-set muscle that connects the ribs and vertebrae to the pelvis and stabilizes the lumbar region. When contracted, the quadratus lumborum helps move the spine into extension. The muscle can also contract on one side to produce spinal flexion or a side bend, such as in triangle pose.

The latissimus dorsi is a larger, more superficial back muscle that stretches all the way from the sacral spine to the top of the humerus. Contracting the latissimus dorsi extends the spine and pulls the shoulders back, allowing for the chest to open and move forward.

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Yoga poses to strengthen the lower back

Locust: Locust pose is a spinal extension performed while lying prone, or face down, on the mat. To enter the pose, lie face down on the mat with your arms alongside your body, palms up. Your legs should rest together on the floor. With an inhale, draw your navel toward your spine to brace your core, then contract your lower back into extension, raising your upper torso and legs off the mat. Hold for a few cycles of breath, releasing your head and feet to the mat on an exhale.

Cobra: Like locust pose, cobra is a prone spinal extension. However, in this variation, the arms are used as leverage to deepen the lower back bend. To enter cobra pose, lie on the mat face down with your legs extended behind you. Place your hands on the mat under your shoulders, keeping the elbows hugged toward the body. With an inhale, begin to press the tops of your feet and your pelvis into the mat, and with an exhale, straighten your arms and allow your head and chest to lift off the mat while the feet and pelvis remain connected to the mat. Hold here for several cycles of breath, releasing back to the yoga mat on an exhale.

Camel: Camel pose is a slightly deeper backbend or spinal extension that is performed from a kneeling position. To enter camel pose, begin kneeling with your legs hip-width apart. With your core engaged and hips forward, begin to arch your back, then, carefully, reach one hand at a time back to grip your heels. While holding the heels, actively press your hips forward and allow your chest to lift toward the ceiling. Your head should remain in a neutral position or gently lowered back. Hold here for a few cycles of breath, coming out of the pose on an inhale.

Wheel: Wheel pose is a deep backbend from a supine, or face-up position. To enter wheel, lie face up on your mat. With the knees bent, place your feet hips-distance apart with the heels close to the glutes. Place your hands palms down near your ears, and, on an exhale, press into palms and feet to raise your head up and come to rest on the crown. Beginners may choose to hold here. For those with a more advanced practice, allow the pelvis to press upward and raise the head entirely off the mat. Hold for a few cycles of breath. To exit the pose, tuck the chin and roll down from the neck.

Muscles of the abdomen

The rectus abdominus, internal oblique, external oblique and transverse abdominus are the four muscles that make up the abdominals, or abs. In addition to protecting the internal organs and assisting in trunk movement, one of the functions of the abdominals is to stabilize the spine. These muscles are strengthened during exercises that cause them to contract or shorten.

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Yoga poses to strengthen the abs

Boat: Boat pose is a balancing pose with many variations to accommodate all practice levels. To enter the pose, sit on the mat with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Engage the core by drawing the navel toward the spine, and, on an exhale, raise the legs off the ground until the thighs are at a 45-degree angle to the mat. Allow your upper body to slightly lower toward the floor. You may place the hands behind the knees to help with balance or extend them in front of you. If you would like more of a challenge, allow the legs to straighten completely. Hold for a few cycles of breath, releasing on an exhale.

Plank: Plank pose is an arm balance that builds strength in the core. To perform plank, begin in a tabletop position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. On an inhale, allow the knees to raise off the mat and straighten the legs. Firm up the abdominals by drawing your navel toward the spine. Lengthen through the heels and crown of the head to create one long line with your body. Hold for a few cycles of breath and release the knees back to the mat on an exhale.

Side Plank: Side plank is a variation on the traditional plank pose that offers an additional balance challenge and strengthens the internal and external obliques on one side at a time. To enter side plank, begin in a traditional plank. On an inhale, raise the left hand toward the ceiling and let your feet spin so that the left foot is resting on top of the right foot. Continue to engage through the core to keep your left hips raised toward the ceiling. For additional balance support, you may choose to allow your right knee to remain on the mat, or you can stagger the feet so that the left toes touch the right heel. Hold for a few cycles of breath and release back through center on an exhale. On the next inhale, repeat the pose on the right side.

Muscles of the glutes

The glutes are a group of three muscles that move the hips and help stabilize the pelvis and lower back. The gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus maximus make up the most substantial muscle group in the body. The glutes, as they are known, help support the lower back during lifting, which makes them important to preventing or treating sciatica. The glutes are strengthened during contraction when the hip is in extension.

Yoga poses to strengthen the glutes

Bridge: Bridge pose is a gentle backbend that strengthens the glutes as they lift the hips. To enter bridge pose, lie face-up on the mat with your knees bent and your feet parallel about hips-distance apart. Your arms should rest along your sides. Move your feet toward your glutes, then press down through the heels as you begin to lift your pelvis off the mat. Press through your palms and engage the glutes to continue lifting your hips toward the ceiling. Hold for a few cycles of breath and release back to the mat on an exhale.

Crescent lunge: Crescent lunge is a standing pose that opens the hips while strengthening the glutes. To enter crescent lunge, stand in mountain pose, then, on an exhale, step your right foot back between three to four feet and raise your arms overhead. Your right foot should rest on the ball of the foot. Bend in your right it is at roughly ninety degrees with your hips square to the front of the mat. Engage your glutes to keep your hips pressing forward. Hold for a few cycles of breath and release back to mountain pose on an exhale.

Stretching the back, glutes and hamstrings for sciatica

Stretching the muscles in and around the lower back is important for treating and preventing sciatica. Stretching the muscles of the hips can be very helpful, particularly muscles like the psoas and piriformis, which help move and stabilize the pelvis. Stretching the back, glutes and hamstrings can prevent these muscles from getting too tight, which may pull the other structures of the back and pelvis out of alignment and irritate the sciatic nerve.

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Yoga poses for stretching back, glutes and hamstrings

Child’s pose: Child’s pose is a resting pose that can help open and stretch the lower back. To enter child’s pose, begin in a tabletop position. On an exhale, send your hips back to rest on your heels. Your knees may be as wide as your mat or narrower if that feels more comfortable to you. Lower your torso between the knees until the forehead touches the mat. Arms can extend palms down on the floor in front of you or can wrap around to touch the heels. Stay here for a few cycles of breath.

You may also choose to stay in child’s pose for an extended period while using a bolster or cushion to support your upper body. Place the bolster between the knees and move it back toward the pelvis. Let your upper body drape over the bolster or cushion and allow your forehead and cheek to come to rest.

Pigeon pose: Pigeon pose is a seated position that stretches the piriformis. To enter pigeon pose, begin in downward facing dog. On an inhale, raise the right leg, and as you exhale send it forward toward the hands, allowing your bent knee to rest near the right wrist. Slowly walk your hands back until they are directly under your shoulders, supporting your torso in an upright position. Once you find comfort in this position, you can deepen the stretch by slowly walking your hands forward and allowing your torso to drape over your right knee. Stay here for a few cycles of breath, pressing back to upright on an inhale and back to downward dog on an exhale. Repeat on the left side.

Reclined hand-to-big-toe pose: The reclined variation of hand-to-big-toe pose is an excellent way to stretch the hamstrings without the potential added stress on the lower back as with the traditional standing version. Using a yoga strap may maximize the benefits of the pose. To perform reclined hand-to-big-toe pose, lie face up on your mat with both legs extended. On an inhale, bend your right knee into the chest and loop the yoga strap around the ball of your foot. On the exhale, straighten the right leg while keeping the foot flexed. Gently pull on the strap to bring the extended leg toward your torso as far as is comfortable. Remain here for several cycles of breath and release the leg back to the mat on an exhale. Repeat on the left side.

Reclined cow face pose: Reclined cow face pose offers a stretch to the deep muscles of the hip and thigh, particularly the gluteus medius and minimus. To enter the pose, lie face down on the mat and bend the knees to rest the feet flat on the floor. On an inhale, cross the right thigh over the left as you slowly raise the legs off the mat. Reach your hands to grab your ankles, and, on the exhale, recline your upper body back to lie flat on the mat. Continue to pull the shape toward your torso. You can deepen the stretch by slowly lowering the knees to the left. Hold for several cycles of breath, releasing on an exhale. Repeat on the left side.

Best Body By Yoga program to help with sciatica pain

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