The sciatic nerve is a large nerve in both humans and animals. It’s so large that it stretches throughout several portions of the body. It begins in the lower back, and then runs through the buttocks and right down the lower legs and feet.
Even though it’s a large nerve, the sciatic nerve is still susceptible to inflammation and outright injury. And, when that nerve gets injured or inflamed, it affects the parts that it influences. The skin of the leg, the muscles of the back of our thighs and the rest of the legs and feet are all affected by this large nerve. When the sciatic nerve becomes injured or inflamed, people feel what’s known as sciatic nerve pain. At our Online Guide for Chronic Body Pain, we’re going to take a closer look at how you can relieve sciatic nerve pain—with the guidance of yoga.
How sciatic nerve pain develops
Sciatic nerve pain is best described as sciatica, since it describes all of the symptoms that occur when the sciatic nerve gets injured or inflamed. Most people feel a shooting, sharp pain down their buttocks, legs and, sometimes, to their feet when they first develop this condition. That pain originates from several sources, interestingly enough including yoga itself. That’s because activities like yoga may end up compressing, overstretching, spraining or even outright damaging the area around the sciatic nerve.
Any pressure resulting from the damage may bear down on the sciatic nerve, sometimes even pinching the nerve, to cause the characteristic shooting or stinging pain many experience. In the medical community, however, many experts agree that most sciatic nerve pain originates from the spine, particularly the spinal discs in cases where they become misaligned, damaged or have worn down. Even genetics might play a role in causing sciatic nerve pain, in addition to other conditions like infections and trauma.
Yoga and sciatic nerve pain
So, you’re probably wondering how yoga might make sciatic nerve pain feel worse. It’s pretty simple to explain. When we perform yoga stretches, we’re stretching our muscles, ligaments and the underlying nerves. Sometimes, the nerves become stuck if they’re moving around, stretching the nerve past its capabilities. That’s what causes nerve pain in many people. The sciatic nerve is actually a network of spinal nerve roots that form from the spinal cord (between the lower lumbar vertebrae and the sacrum. When sciatica develops, it’s usually because these nerve roots have been compressed in some way.
The main culprit of that is the Piriformis muscle, since the fibers of the muscles more or less cushion part of the sciatic nerve. When there’s tension in the muscle, it compresses the nerve, which might lead to its characteristic sciatic nerve pain. Interestingly enough, only 15 percent of people are affected by the Piriformis muscle causing sciatic nerve pain. Other people may experience sciatic nerve pain originating from issues with their sacroiliac joints.
Yoga might also cause sciatic nerve pain by:
- Compressing the nerve roots, if a person performs extreme back bending
- Stretching and/or damaging the sciatic nerve through holding asanas (like Kurmasana) for long periods of time
- Practicing too many leg strengthening postures, causing the hip muscles to over stretch
Even though yoga might cause a lot of damage to the sciatic nerve, that doesn’t mean you should rule out yoga entirely. Yoga is actually an alternative treatment for sciatic nerve pain. Though, in order to use it right, you need a great licensed practitioner to show you how to perform yoga right.
Yoga for sciatic nerve pain
Yoga helps relieve sciatic nerve pain mainly through helps strengthen the area surrounding the sciatic nerve without causing any pain or, rather, causing as little pain as possible. Hamstring stretches also play a large role in using yoga for relieving sciatic nerve pain. These stretches safely stretch the hamstrings or the muscles of the back of the thigh. Let’s look at two distinct ways yoga stretches help relieve sciatic nerve pain.
If the sciatic nerve pain originates from a herniated or bulging disc, yoga using gentle poses that progress to foundational asanas like standing poses or downward-facing ‘dogs’ are used for treatment. These poses help align, lengthen and eventually strengthen the lower back.
If the sciatic nerve pain originates from pressure bothering the nerve, it’s usually due to the Piriformis muscle. So, in order to treat it, yoga stretches that target that muscles are used. Before performing the exercises themselves, most people start off with deep breathing (ujjayi breathing). Deep breathing allows the muscles within the lower back to relax and allow people to better connect with their yoga for sciatic nerve pain.
Yoga poses for sciatic nerve pain
We’ve talked about how yoga can help people relieve their sciatic nerve pain, but we haven’t yet looked at any poses. Well, now’s the time for that. Here’s a look at three yoga poses for sciatic nerve pain:
Locust Pose ~ Salabhasana
This is considered one of the gentlest back bends around. It helps strengthen the area surrounding the sciatic nerve. It also opens the area to better blood circulation, more or less helping the area heal better. The pose starts us off on our stomachs. Then, rest your arms to your sides with your palms facing up. When you inhale, lift your chest and arms; when you’re comfortable, lift your legs. Hold to five breaths and repeat twice when you’re ready.
Half ‘Lord of the Fishes’ Pose ~ Ardha Matsyendrasana
This pose benefits people with a distinct tightness within the Piriformis muscle. It might, however, benefit people who do feel the same tightness, but don’t necessarily have a malformed Piriformis muscle. Start in a comfortable seated position. Bend your knees, and then (on your inhale) cross your left leg over your right knee. Cross your right elbow over your left knee, coming to a twist. When you do this, you should feel a stretch run through your left buttocks and into your thigh. Hold the position for 10 breaths and then switch sides. If you feel too uncomfortable, fold a blanket and place it underneath your seat for support.
Cobra Pose ~ Bhujangasana
This pose also helps strength the muscles around the sciatic nerve, while helping boost blood circulation within the lower back area. Start on your stomach, keeping your pubic bone and upper thighs pressed to the mat. When you inhale, lift your chest and straighten your arms. Bring your shoulder blades together (to the back) and open your heart. Hold your pose for 10 breaths.