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The sciatic nerve. rumruay/Shutterstock. Photo editing by Monica Pardo

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Sciatic nerve pain can be so excruciating and debilitating that you don’t even want to get off the couch. You probably know more than one person with this condition, as it’s relatively common with a lifetime incidence of 10 to 40 percent.

The sciatic nerve begins at your lower back, your hips, and your buttocks, going down each of your legs and bending at the knees. Sciatic pain happens when there’s a problem anywhere along this pathway.

Common causes of sciatica can include:

Sciatic pain can also happen due to a condition called piriformis syndrome. Your piriformis muscle extends from your buttocks at the edge of your spine all the way to the top of your thigh. Sometimes this muscle can spasm and trap the sciatic nerve, which is located nearby. This can result in sciatic pain.

Certified physical therapist Mindy Marantz says that sciatica pain can occur for a variety of reasons. “Identifying what doesn’t move is the first step toward solving the problem,” she explains. Often, the most problematic body parts are the lower back and hips.

Dr. Mark Kovacs, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, adds that the best way to alleviate most sciatica pain is to do “any stretch that can externally rotate the hip to provide some relief.”

Here are 10 exercises that do just that:

  • reclining pigeon pose
  • sitting pigeon pose
  • forward pigeon pose
  • knee to opposite shoulder
  • sitting spinal stretch
  • standing hamstring stretch
  • basic seated stretch
  • standing piriformis stretch
  • groin and long abductor muscle stretch
  • scissor hamstring stretch

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The reclining pigeon pose is one of several pigeon stretches that can help stretch the piriformis muscle.
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The reclining pigeon pose is a common yoga pose. It works to open the hips. There are multiple versions of this stretch. The first is a starting version known as the reclining pigeon pose. If you’re just starting your treatment, you should try the reclining pose first.

  1. While on your back, bring your right leg up to a right angle. Clasp both hands behind the thigh, locking your fingers.
  2. Lift your left leg and place your right ankle on top of the left knee.
  3. Hold the position for a moment. This helps stretch the piriformis muscle, which sometimes becomes inflamed and presses against the sciatic nerve, causing pain. It also stretches all the deep hip rotator muscles.
  4. Do the same exercise with the other leg.

Once you can do the reclining version without pain, work with your physical therapist on the sitting and forward versions of the pigeon pose.

Shop for yoga mats online.

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In this version of pigeon pose, you sit cross-legged.
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  1. Sit on the floor with your legs stretched out straight in front of you.
  2. Bend your right leg, putting your right ankle on top of the left knee.
  3. Lean forward and allow your upper body to reach toward your thigh.
  4. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. This stretches the glutes and lower back.
  5. Repeat on the other side.

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Begin this version of the pigeon pose by getting on your knees on the floor, facing down.
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  1. Kneel on the floor on all fours.
  2. Pick up your right leg and move it forward on the ground in front of your body. Your lower leg should be on the ground, horizontal to the body. Your right foot should be in front of your left knee while your right knee stays to the right.
  3. Stretch the left leg out all the way behind you on the floor, with the top of the foot on the ground and toes pointing back.
  4. Shift your body weight gradually from your arms to your legs so that your legs are supporting your weight. Sit up straight with your hands on either side of your legs.
  5. Take a deep breath. While exhaling, lean your upper body forward over your front leg. Support your weight with your arms as much as possible.
  6. Repeat on the other side.

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The knee to opposite shoulder stretch is done while lying flat on your back.
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This simple stretch helps relieve sciatica pain by loosening your gluteal and piriformis muscles, which can become inflamed and press against the sciatic nerve.

  1. Lie on your back with your legs extended and your feet flexed upward.
  2. Bend your right leg and clasp your hands around the knee.
  3. Gently pull your right leg across your body toward your left shoulder. Hold it there for 30 seconds. Remember to pull your knee only as far as it will comfortably go. You should feel a relieving stretch in your muscle, not pain.
  4. Push your knee so your leg returns to its starting position.
  5. Repeat for a total of 3 reps, then switch legs.

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In the sitting spinal stretch, turn to your side to help relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve.
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Sciatica pain is triggered when vertebrae in the spine compress. This stretch helps create space in the spine to relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve.

  1. Sit on the ground with your legs extended straight out with your feet flexed upward.
  2. Bend your right knee and place your foot flat on the floor on the outside of your opposite knee.
  3. Place your left elbow on the outside of your right knee to help you gently turn your body toward the right.
  4. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat three times, then switch sides.

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To do the standing hamstring stretch, begin by standing, and place your right foot on a higher surface, like a chair.
Illustration by Maya Chastain

This stretch can help ease pain and tightness in the hamstring caused by sciatica.

  1. Place your right foot on an elevated surface at or below your hip level. This could be a chair, ottoman, or step on a staircase. Flex your foot so your toes and leg are straight. If your knee tends to hyperextend, keep a slight bend in it.
  2. Bend your body forward slightly toward your foot. The further you go, the deeper the stretch. Don’t push so far that you feel pain.
  3. Release the hip of your raised leg downward as opposed to lifting it up. If you need help easing your hip down, loop a yoga strap or long exercise band over your right thigh and under your left foot.
  4. Hold for at least 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.

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While stretching each leg in the basic seated stretch, remember to keep your back straight.
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You begin this stretch by sitting down on a chair and crossing your painful leg over the knee of your other leg. Then follow these steps:

  • Bend forward with your chest and try to hold your spine straight. As long as it’s not painful, try to bend over a bit more. Stop if you feel any pain.
  • Keep this position for 30 seconds and repeat the exercise with the other leg.

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You can hold your hands on your hips for extra balance while in the standing piriformis stretch.
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This is another standing stretch that can help with sciatica pain. You can do this without support if you’re able, or you can stand against a wall and place your feet about 24 inches from the wall.

  • Put your painful leg over the knee of your other leg while standing. Bend your standing leg and try to make the number 4 with your hips lowered to the ground at a 45-degree angle.
  • Bend your waist down and swing your arms down while holding your back straight. Stay in position for 30 to 60 seconds.
  • Switch legs and repeat.

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In the groin and long adductor muscle stretch, angle your torso toward the floor.
Illustration by Alyssa Kiefer

This stretch requires sitting down on the floor with your legs spread out as far apart as you can straight in front of you.

  • Place your hands on the floor in front of you on the floor and angle your torso toward the floor.
  • Lean forward, leaving your elbows on the floor. Hold the position for 10 to 20 seconds. Stop if you feel any pain.

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By bending down in the scissor hamstring stretch, you can reduce the pressure of the hamstring muscles on the sciatic nerve. Jose Coello/Stocksy United

The ischial tuberosity, also known as the sit or sitz bones, begins at the ischium, which is one of the parts that make up the pelvic girdle along with the ilium and the pubis.

The hamstring muscles attach to the ischial tuberosity via the sacrotuberous ligament (STL). When they are tight, hamstring muscles can mimic sciatica symptoms.

This stretch can help loosen those hamstring muscles, helping relieve their pressure on the sciatic nerve. It may help to do this exercise daily.

  • Place your right foot about 3 feet behind your left foot.
  • Pull your hips forward and push your shoulders back, but your right hip shouldn’t be farther forward than your left hip. A mirror may help make a judgment on this.
  • Put your hands on your hips. You may use a chair for balance if you need it.
  • Push your torso a bit over your front leg by bending your waist while keeping your back straight. Keep your weight on your front leg.
  • Keep this position for 5 to 10 seconds, then repeat the stretch with the opposite leg. Do the stretch for each leg 3 to 5 times.

Kovacs emphasizes that you shouldn’t assume that you’ll be as flexible as the exercises ideally call for. “Don’t think that because of what you see on YouTube or TV that you can get into these positions,” he says. “Most people who demonstrate the exercises have great flexibility and have been doing it for years. If you have any kind of pain, you should stop.”

Corina Martinez, a physical therapist at Duke Sports Medicine Center and member of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, says that there’s no one-size-fits-all exercise for people who have sciatic nerve pain.

She suggests adjusting the positions slightly, such as pulling your knees in more or less, and noticing how they feel. “If one feels better, that is the treatment you want to pursue,” she advises.

Martinez says that anyone experiencing even mild sciatic nerve pain for more than a month should see a doctor or physical therapist. They may find relief with an in-home exercise program tailored specifically to their pain.

The first line of intervention for sciatica should definitely be physical therapy because it is active, it is educational, and the primary goal is to restore function and make each patient independent.

The clue is to find experienced, manual trained physical therapists who combine an understanding of alignment, movement, and therapeutic exercise, and who set up a clear plan of care to reach measurable goals. After that, what’s left is to actively participate in the program!
— Mindy Marantz, PT, MS, GCFP