Initially, rest is often recommended to ease sciatica symptoms, along with therapeutic treatments such as heat and ice applications, massage therapy, and anti-inflammatory medications. The purpose of exercise is to strengthen muscles that directly or indirectly support the lower spine to ease stress on the sciatic nerve, a large nerve that runs from the lower back and down the leg. Some people find an elliptical machine an appealing exercise option, but many want to know if it is good for relieving sciatic pain.
Providing Low-Stress Exercise
For many people with sciatica, an elliptical machine is a good and safe form of low-stress, low-impact cardio exercise. Unlike regular biking, there’s more control with the pace, and you can start off slow and explore other elliptical exercises as your muscle strength increases and your pain decreases. When you get started, minimize back stress by:
- Adjusting the resistance control settings
- Setting the incline/decline (ramp control) so you’re not bending too far forward
- Selecting a tempo or cadence (steps per minute) that’s comfortable for you
Preventing Hard Ground Contact
You’ll be using raised foot pedals, so there’s no contact with the ground, which means no stress radiating from the legs to the lower back to aggravate the sciatic nerve. You’ll still go through a forward gliding motion and a smoother step-through, which means less stress on joints. However, there’s still enough motion to strengthen muscles.
Working Other Muscle Groups
As your muscle strength increases, use the elliptical trainer to shift your focus to other muscle groups. Since sciatica affects hips and legs, especially if irritation of the piriformis muscle (by the sciatic nerve) is what’s contributing to your discomfort, targeting muscle groups in this area may be beneficial. Change the muscle groups you’re targeting by adjusting the ramp control. For instance, a higher ramp setting works the quadriceps and glutes.
Minimizing Stress at the Source
A common cause of sciatica is a herniated disc in the lower back, even though the pain is felt in the legs, hips, or feet. With the elliptical machine, you’ll be in a flexed position, which is often a comfortable position for individuals with lumbar joint or disc problems contributing to sciatica. Because of the adjustments available on an elliptical trainer, you should be able to find a position that provides the least resistance on your lower back, which will benefit you if that’s the source of your sciatica.
Adding Separate Weight-Bearing Exercises
While weight-bearing exercises should be avoided for about 4 to 8 weeks after sciatic nerve pain first develops, some basic exercises can usually be safely incorporated into your routine as you progress with the elliptical machine. You’ll want to avoid things like squats and deadlifts, but gentle core muscle strengthening exercises and aerobic activities like walking can be a good starting point and a safe complement to your elliptical routine.
Newer elliptical trainers sometimes have features like ski poles that allow for upper body conditioning and foot pedals that can move in either direction to target additional muscle groups. If you’re new to elliptical training, consider taking a class to learn proper techniques. Water-based exercises and yoga may provide similar benefits if an elliptical machine isn’t right for you. Report new or worsening sciatica pain to your doctor or a minimally invasive spine surgeon. Los Angeles spine experts are available to evaluate sciatic pain and determine the most effective plan for treatment.
At The Spine Institute Center for Spinal Restoration, we specialize in a wide array of procedures, from spinal cord stimulation to Mobi-C disc replacement. Los Angeles patients can trust in Dr. Hyun Bae and his team of expert spine surgeons. Call 310-828-7757 today to schedule an in-person evaluation.