For many seniors, sciatica, or sciatic nerve pain, is debilitating. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body, running from the lower back, through the buttocks, and down each leg. While many people experience sciatic nerve pain in the lower back and hips, others experience the pain all the way to the feet.
Sciatic nerve pain isn't due to a problem with the nerve itself – it's caused by pressure, or pinching, of the nerve. Weight gain, diabetes, inactivity, injury, and bone/joint weakness can all cause sciatic nerve pain.
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Keep in Mind:
Before starting any new exercise(s), we strongly recommend you follow the advice of the National Institute on Aging and consult your doctor.
Benefits of Sciatica Exercises for Seniors
Luckily, stretches and lifestyle changes can go a long way in alleviating sciatic nerve pain. Stretches and other types of exercise can relieve pressure on the root of the sciatic nerve, which can lessen or eliminate the pain that radiates through the length of the nerve. In addition to relieving pain, doing sciatica exercises regularly can increase overall mobility, making it easier to stay active and perform physical activity. This can also reduce the likelihood of injury in the event of a fall.
Here, we'll explore the best sciatica exercises for seniors. Of course, it's always a smart move to check in with your doctor before beginning an exercise or stretching program. Some of these stretches may put you in positions that can make it tough to stand back up, so you may want someone with you the first time you give these moves a try.
This simple exercise can be done anywhere that you can lie down, and provides an easy, low-mobility way to find some relief from lower back and hip pain associated with sciatica. This small movement works the glutes and can help to strengthen the lower abdominal muscles.
- 1Lie on your back on a firm surface, such as a yoga mat on the floor. If this is not possible for you, a pelvic tilt can also be done on a firm mattress.
- 2Bend your knees, keeping your feet hip width apart, with your toes pointed forward. Rest your arms at your sides, and let your head rest comfortably.
- 3Tuck the pelvis toward your upper body, while pressing your lower back into the floor or your mattress. You'll likely feel a tensing of the abdominal muscles. If it's hard to activate the muscles required to mobilize the lower back, think about pulling your pelvis toward your forehead, with the idea of your body forming a "C" shape.
- 4Hold for 5-10 seconds, and release. Repeat 10 times.
Supine Lower Back Stretch
This stretch isn't just great for relieving sciatica pain – it's also excellent at improving digestion. Doing the supine lower back stretch first thing in the morning can be a great way to get your day started.
- 1Lie on your back on a firm surface, such as a yoga mat. The supine lower back stretch does not work well on a mattress, as you need firm support.
- 2Bend your knees, keeping your legs together and your feet flat on the ground.
- 3Allow your knees to fall to the right side of your body, keeping a 90-degree angle.
- 4As your knees rest to your side, straighten your upper body, and work to keep both shoulders on the ground.
- 5Extend your left arm, allowing your upper body to fully expand as your knees remain on one side.
- 6Hold for 5-10 seconds. Repeat on the other side of the body. Repeat 10 times.
As you move through the bridge stretch, you'll notice a nearly-immediate lessening of pressure on your lower back. Bonus: this stretch also works to strengthen the hamstrings and glutes. Not sure you're doing bridge correctly? This stretch is a great one to do in front of the mirror to double-check your form. Recording yourself on your phone can also work.
- 1Start on a firm surface, such as a yoga mat on the floor or a sturdy couch.
- 2Bend your knees and plant your feet hip width apart, with your toes pointing forward. Arms, head, and neck should all be relaxed.
- 3Keep your feet flat on the floor and push up through your heels, raising your hips toward the ceiling. Your head, shoulders, arms, and heels are the only parts of your body contacting the ground during the stretch. Work to create a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Be sure to keep your shoulders flat on the ground – you shouldn't feel pressure on your neck.
- 4Hold for 5-10 seconds, working to contract the glutes and hamstrings at the top of the stretch. Repeat 10 times.
Knee to Chest Stretch
The best stretch is the kind that you can do without even getting out of bed, and the knee to chest stretch fits into that category. Doing this stretch before you go to bed at night and when you wake up in the morning can set you up for hours of lessened sciatica pain.
- 1Lie on your back, arms resting comfortably at your sides.
- 2Bend the knee of one leg, drawing it toward your chest. You should feel tension in the hip joint as you do this. Pull in enough to feel the stretch, but not that you feel pain. Remember to keep breathing through the stretch, even though your abdominal area may be slightly compressed due to the positioning of your leg.
- 3Hold for 5-10 seconds, repeat on the other side. Repeat 10 times.
Variation: Pull both knees toward the chest, hold for 5-10 seconds, repeat 10 times.
Seated Hamstring Stretch
While your hamstrings aren't likely the cause of your sciatica pain, keeping them loose can lessen tension in your body and make it less likely that your sciatica will become aggravated throughout the day. You can do this seated stretch on a bench or chair, or you can take it to the floor if you're feeling flexible.
- 1Sit normally in a chair, or on the edge of a couch or bed.
- 2Straighten one leg while keeping the other leg bent.
- 3Flex the foot of the straight leg toward the ceiling.
- 4Gently lean the upper body forward, bending at the waist. Be careful not to round the shoulders. If you do not feel the stretch by leaning forward, extend your arms toward your flexed toe. Remember, it's most important to perform the stretch correctly – not to reach as far as you can go. Only bend into the stretch as far as feels challenging yet comfortable. Your range of motion can differ from day to day.
- 5Hold the stretch for 5-10 seconds, repeat on the other side. Repeat 10 times.
Variation: For a different stretch, flex both feet toward the ceiling at the same time. Bend at the waist to bring your upper body toward your feet. Hold for 5-10 seconds, repeat 10 times. This stretch can also be performed from a standing position.
Reclining Pigeon Pose
There are a few reasons we saved this stretch for last: it can be challenging to get into, but the feeling afterward is incredibly rewarding. It may take some time to work up to the reclining pigeon pose. Remember, don't push yourself past your limits, and never stretch to the point of pain. Slight discomfort during stretching is normal, but sharp or burning pain is a sign that you've gone too far. This stretch can be performed on any surface, including a bed or couch.
- 1Lie on your back on a comfortable surface, with your arms resting comfortably at your sides.
- 2Bend your knees.
- 3Lift one leg, keeping the knee bent.
- 4Place the ankle of the lifted leg over the knee of the opposite leg. For some people, this provides enough of a stretch that nothing more is needed. If this position is challenging for you, feel free to hold the stretch here.
- 5Reach forward with both hands toward the leg that isn't lifted. Clasp your hands either under the thigh or on the shin, depending on your comfort and flexibility.
- 6Allow the tension of your arms/clasped hands to pull your legs toward your body, allowing your foot that was resting on the floor to float into the air. You should feel the stretch in the hip/ glute area of the leg that you initially lifted.
- 7Hold the stretch for 5-10 seconds, repeat on both sides. Repeat 10 times.
Many seniors feel that sciatica pain is just a part of life. While this can be true from time to time, stretching, exercise, and making other lifestyle changes to reduce risk factors for sciatica pain can go a long way in keeping the sciatic nerve from causing pain. If you try sciatica stretches for a few weeks and don't notice a change, or if your pain is severe, it's a good idea to check in with your doctor.