The sciatic nerve extends from the lower back and branches off into two groups of nerves (tibial and peroneal nerves) that go to different parts of the legs. Because of this setup, it’s often an unpredictable source of pain. For the 3 million or so people in the U.S. affected by sciatica, managing this discomfort often includes strengthening supporting muscles to take pressure off nerve roots. The easiest way to achieve this effect is through physical activity. While there’s no denying the importance of exercise, it should be done in a way that’s both safe and effective. Beverly Hills spine surgeons share some exercise tips to keep in mind if you are living with sciatica.
1. Prepare Back-Supporting Muscles with Heat Therapy
Before getting started with any exercises to ease your sciatica symptoms, try heat therapy for about 15 to 20 minutes beforehand. The application of heat increases circulation within tissues and blocks pain signals from going to the sensory receptors in the brain.
Heat also stretches soft tissues to decrease muscle stiffness and increase flexibility. It can be applied with a heating pad or heat pack or with topical creams or rubs that stimulate muscles with heat. When using heat to prepare muscles for exercise, remember to:
- Avoid applying heat directly to the skin (except with a warm bath)
- Apply the heat to the area of the lower back that’s the actual source of nerve irritation, not where the pain is being felt
- Stay away from heat therapy if you have conditions that can be negatively affected by heat (diabetes, dermatitis, deep vein thrombosis)
2. Stick to Low-Impact Exercises
High-impact exercises should be avoided because of all the jarring and excessive strain that can happen. A safer way to work muscles around the spine or the sciatic nerve is with low-impact aerobic exercises. Such activities can provide long-term sciatica relief by increasing the flow of oxygen and nutrients to spinal tissues, which can help minimize the inflammation.
Bikes and elliptical machines provide effective stimulation since muscles in the lower back and legs are targeted at the same time. If a regular bike is too strenuous, stationary exercise bikes can provide the same benefits.
Elliptical trainers provide added control by allowing you to adjust resistance based on what feels comfortable. Incline can also be controlled to avoid placing pressure on the affected disc or part of the spine that usually triggers sciatic nerve pain. Low-impact activities that may relieve sciatica include:
- Casual walking around the neighborhood or in the mall
- Water-based exercises like pool walking or water aerobics
- Certain forms of yoga that focus more on slow, controlled movements
Before starting any exercise routine, check with your doctor. If given the go-ahead, begin with about 5 to 10 minutes of low-impact exercise and increase your efforts based on your comfort. If you experience any new or worsening pain, take a break and try heat or ice applications to ease any unintended nerve irritation. If your discomfort continues, seek medical input.
Though exercise can be helpful, some instances of chronic pain cannot be alleviated without minimally invasive surgery. At The Spine Institute Center for Spinal Restoration, we offer many surgical and non-surgical solutions for relieving back and neck pain, whether you need spinal fusion or a Coflex implant. Beverly Hills patients can trust in Dr. Hyun Bae and his team of highly trained surgeons. Call 310-828-7757 today to schedule an in-person evaluation and take the first steps toward living a pain-free life.