Although exercises really do help for sciatica, it can be a real mine-field when choosing which ones to do and which sciatica exercises to avoid! Read on for my number one sciatica exercise to avoid, and a fantastic, effective alternative (with pictures)!
Aims of this post:
- To reveal the number one sciatica exercise you need to AVOID – even though you see it on YouTube all the time
- To discuss the exact mechanism for why you need to avoid it
- To give you a super-effective and safe alternative exercise
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The number one sciatica exercise to avoid – have you been aggravating your sciatica unknowingly?
I am a huge advocate for finding the RIGHT exercises to do for sciatica, but as most people who suffer from sciatica are aware, it’s all too easy to cause a flare up when you pick the wrong ones.
Luckily, I have put together this article which will show you the NUMBER ONE sciatica exercise to avoid – which I see far too often…
I have also provided a fantastic alternative for someone who is suffering from pain down the back of the leg (and wants to do something about it!)
With this information, you will hopefully be able to make the right decision about treating your sciatica naturally at home without making yourself 10 times worse!
Firstly, if you want to read more about what sciatica is, or if you’re not sure about whether you have it or not, you can read my ultimate guide to sciatica symptoms HERE.
For exercises specific to Piriformis Syndrome, click HERE!
Let’s get right in and identify that number one sciatica exercise to avoid, and exactly why you need to avoid it – PLUS, some of the best exercises for sciatica that you can use as an alternative!
The number one sciatica exercise to avoid
The seated hamstring stretch
Have you ever been told that you need to stretch your hamstrings to help the pain at the back of your leg?
Maybe your personal trainer, physiotherapist or even doctor told you to stretch your legs to help with your sciatica?
Well, if you’ve been doing the above stretch, there’s a good chance that you’ve been making your sciatica WORSE, not better!
The hamstrings are a muscle group that sit at the back of the leg. They are certainly at risk of getting tight for lots of people – especially those who sit for long periods of the day like office workers. They are also often tight in people who play sports.
The hamstrings are depicted above in red.
If someone sustains a hamstring injury, often it is the correct thing to do to stretch the hamstrings.
However, in sciatica, this exercise is definitely one to be avoided.
This is the number one sciatica exercise to avoid because it’s the one that I see patients doing all the time before they come to see me.
The reason people start to do this stretch actually seems quite sensible – if you have tightness at the back of your leg, and the hamstrings are known to get tight, surely it makes sense to stretch them?
In this case, that logic is definitely wrong!
Although someone with sciatica is just as likely to have tight hamstrings, in sciatica it isn’t the hamstring that’s causing the pain; it’s the sciatic nerve.
Read all about the function of the sciatic nerve HERE.
The sciatic nerve runs under the hamstrings, which is why it often feels like the hamstring itself that is causing the pain in sciatica.
So when you stretch in this way, it probably won’t help to alleviate the pain. It is actually likely to really aggravate your symptoms. I’ll explain why now…
If we look at all the nerves in the body, they are all connected. The spinal cord, which runs between the bones in our spine, branches off to form every nerve in the body. This includes the sciatic nerve.
When we slump forward and reach for our toes, like in a hamstring stretch, we are actually putting a STRETCH on the spinal cord, which in turn stretches the sciatic nerve.
There is one thing that has become clear in the medical profession: Nerves hate to be stretched!
When you stretch a nerve, it will complain by increasing its sensitivity and therefore giving you more pain than before.
The action of putting the sciatic nerve on a stretch is actually a “provocation test” used by doctors and physiotherapists to diagnose sciatica. It is called a provocation test because it PROVOKES symptoms; it definitely doesn’t make them better!
You can see one of the nerve provocation tests to assess for sciatica below:
Looks a lot like the hamstring stretch from the above pictures right??
An embarrassing story
I have a slightly embarrassing story for you all here:
I was once treating a patient who was referred through to me for “hamstring tightness” at the back of both legs.
I assessed him and agreed that there certainly was hamstring tightness in this gentleman, and that could be a cause for his symptoms. This was especially likely because he spent a large proportion of his day sitting.
I sent him away with lots of hamstring stretches to do at home.
The next week, he came in to see me complaining that his pain was no better. If anything, it was getting slightly worse.
I re-assessed him, making sure to ask him about his back and any sciatica symptoms, which were all clear.
I sent him away again, after doing some soft tissue work on his hamstrings, only for him to come back in again next week with no change yet again!
In the end, I asked for a specialist to review him with me. The specialist suggested that we stop all hamstring stretches and start “nerve flossing exercises” (which I will show you later in the article).
Sure enough, by the following week, this gentleman was drastically better when he came to see me. Turns out his symptoms were caused by sciatic nerve tightness, not the hamstrings at all!
I was foxed by the fact that he didn’t have any back pain, or any other signs of sciatica. Now I know to ALWAYS test the sciatic nerve more thoroughly when I see my clients.
Other sciatica exercises to avoid
There are certainly other variations of this hamstring stretch that you need to avoid, too.
A lot of these variations are present in exercises classes, like yoga and Pilates.
Now I’m not saying that you need to avoid yoga and Pilates; I actually think these are fantastic methods of returning to full fitness after sciatica.
It isn’t the core strengthening that helps your back pain and sciatica – read all about why in this post HERE.
It’s just some of the stretches within these classes can put you in a position that is similar to the hamstring stretch we talked about before, and this can aggravate your symptoms.
One of these positions that you need to avoid is the “downward dog”:
This position almost flips the hamstring stretch upside down, and although it looks different, it is still putting a stretch on the hamstrings. You may find that bending forward like this is painful anyway, as lots of my sciatica clients do.
Another commonly prescribed sciatica exercise to avoid is this variation of the hamstring stretch, shown here:
The above stretch will probably feel absolutely awful for you if you are suffering from sciatica right now!
You should definitely avoid this exercise if you have sciatica. It is yet another variation of the number one sciatica exercise to avoid that we spoke about earlier, just on your back.
This video shows THREE more hamstring stretches you need to avoid – even if your doctor or physio said otherwise:
Hopefully now you can see why the hamstring stretch is my number one common sciatica exercise to avoid. I hope this will be enough of an explanation for you to take them out of your own treatment plan!
But What Else Should I Avoid If I Have Sciatica?
Here are some more of the exercises and activities to avoid with sciatica pain:
- Straight-legged sit-ups
These put extra, unwanted stress on the spine and also place tension on the sciatic nerve. Avoid these at all costs while suffering from sciatica.
- Heavy Squats
While squats aren’t necessarily a “bad” exercise, when you have sciatica, they may place strain on the lower back and increase disc pressure – making your sciatica worse.
- Straight-legged Deadlifts
Straight leg deadlifts (or Romanian Deadlifts) are actually good for your back… IF performed correctly – but one slight mistake and you can make a disc bulge worse. They also put a stretch on your hamstrings – which is exactly what we want to avoid as discussed in this article!
Now let’s discuss options for replacing the aforementioned hamstring stretch with an effective alternative.
Do this instead!
So now we know that the hamstring stretch is a sciatica exercise to avoid, what can we do instead? Let’s talk about some of the good exercises for sciatica – ones that aren’t likely to make your symptoms worse.
There is a very effective exercise to replace the hamstring stretch with, which is in some ways similar but the subtle differences make it a completely separate technique.
The exercise you should replace it with is called “Sciatic Nerve Flossing”.
Nerve flossing is a technique which relates to the fact that nerves have to run through very tight spaces to get to their target limb or tissue.
Along their windy course, they can get trapped or pinched, which directly causes irritation. This irritation is felt as sciatica.
If we can perform specific movements which “floss” the nerve safely through these tight spaces, we can help it to “glide” more freely through these gaps, which can dramatically reduce symptoms!
I will show you how to perform this nerve flossing technique with both pictures and a YouTube video, so you can copy at home.
Start off perched on the side of a seat or bed. Extend your painful leg in front of you. Lift your chin up, and as you do so, bring your toes up towards you at the ankle while keeping the leg straight.
Then, drop your chin down to your chest while also dropping the toes towards the floor as shown in the second picture.
To perform this exercise, simply alternate between the first and second position shown.
Here is a video of this action in motion. The lady doing it has her foot lifted off the floor, but you can keep yours down if you’d rather:
What Other Exercises Can I Do for Sciatica?
Along with the nerve flossing techniques that I have described above, there are other stretches you can do that will help your sciatica.
Even though stretching the hamstrings is not advisable when you have sciatica, that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from stretching other muscles in the legs, like the gluteals, piriformis and quadriceps.
Let’s have a quick look at some easy stretches for these muscles below. Remember to STOP any of these stretches if they make your symptoms worse at any point!
Sat on the floor as shown, pull one knee across your body towards the opposite shoulder and hold for 30 seconds.
Repeat this a few times per day on each side.
Lying on the floor as shown, cross the leg to be stretched over the other leg.
Now, bring both knees up towards your chest. You should feel a stretch in your buttock. Hold for 30 seconds.
A runners favourite – whilst standing, bend the knee that is be stretched and grasp the foot in your hand.
You should feel a stretch at the front of your thigh. Hold for 30 seconds.
I hope you can now see exactly why the hamstring stretch is a sciatica exercise to avoid, and how replacing it with a nerve flossing exercise can dramatically help your symptoms.
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