A common cause of sciatica is spinal stenosis, a condition in which a passageway where a nerve root exits the spine becomes too narrow and compresses the nerve. Sciatica from spinal stenosis includes sharp, stabbing pain that radiates down the leg while walking, with pain relief felt when sitting down or leaning forward.

See What Is Spinal Stenosis?

Lumbar spinal stenosis causes a constriction of the space for nerves in the lumbar spine.
Watch:
Lumbar Spinal Stenosis Video

The medical terms for sciatica leg pain include radiculopathy or radicular pain.

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How Exercises Help Spinal Stenosis

When treating sciatica from spinal stenosis, a spine specialist may encourage flexion exercises (forward bending). Bending the lower spine forward opens up the passageways where nerves exit the spine, and allows nerve irritation or impingement to resolve. This is why symptoms of spinal stenosis often feel better when bending forward (such as leaning on a cane, walker, or shopping cart) than when standing up straight.

Back exercises targeted at alleviating sciatica pain caused by stenosis typically include a combination of stretching and strengthening exercises that focus on:

  1. Stretching the muscles of the back that hold the spine in extension (backward bending)
  2. Strengthening the muscles that bring the spine into flexion (forward bending)

Through regular practice of these exercises, the spine can be gradually trained to hold itself in a position that opens up the nerve passageways and reduces the occurrence of leg pain.

Sciatica Exercises for Spinal Stenosis: Stretching

The lower back muscles can be stretched with flexion exercises, or forward bending. These sciatica exercises include the following:

  • Back flexion. Lie on the back and gently pull the knees to the chest until a comfortable stretch is felt. After 30 seconds, slowly return to starting position. Aim to complete 4 to 6 repetitions of this flex
  • Child’s pose. Get down on the hands and knees, then sit back on the heels. Spread the knees comfortably apart and bend forward so the head is resting on the floor and the arms are outstretched in front of it. After 30 seconds, slowly return to starting position. Aim to complete 4 to 6 repetitions of this stretch. Do not bounce on the heels.

See Stretching for Back Pain Relief

It may be necessary to start by holding each stretch for 10 to 15 seconds and gradually build to 30 seconds. If a stretch hurts or causes sciatica to worsen, stop immediately.

Sciatica Pain Relief Exercises for Stenosis: Strengthening

Strengthening exercises for spinal stenosis focus on strengthening the lower abdominal muscles and include the following:

Exercises to help alleviate the sciatica pain caused by spinal stenosis typically focus on stretching and strengthening the back muscles. Watch Sciatica Exercises for Spinal Stenosis Video

  • Pelvic tilt. Lie on the back with both knees bent and press the low back into the floor by tightening the lower stomach muscles, pulling the navel in and toward the sternum. Hold for 10 seconds. Aim to complete 8 to 10 repetitions.
  • Hook-lying march. For a more advanced sciatica exercise, hold a pelvic tilt while marching in place, slowly raising alternate legs 3 to 4 inches from the floor. Aim to march for 30 seconds. Repeat for 1 or 2 more sets, with 30-second breaks in between repetitions.
  • Curl-ups. Lying on the back in a pelvic tilt, fold the arms across chest, then raise the head and shoulders from the floor. Hold for 2 to 4 seconds, then slowly lower to starting position. As strength builds, aim to complete 2 sets of 10 curls.

See Back Strengthening Exercises

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These exercises alone will not necessarily alleviate sciatic pain, but they will allow a person to more easily hold the spine in a comfortable position during activities, especially standing and walking.

View Slideshow: 9 Exercises for Sciatica Pain Relief

This posture can allow daily activities to be performed with less pain. The pelvic tilt may be difficult to learn and can take a good deal of practice with the guidance of a physical therapist before it is used effectively to alleviate sciatica resulting from spinal stenosis

See How a Physical Therapist Can Help with Exercise

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