Sciatica is a general term used to explain a set of symptoms around the sciatic nerve; the term sciatica does not refer to a clinical diagnosis. The medical term for sciatica is radiculopathy, which means that a radicular nerve (nerve root) in the lower back is irritated or pinched.
Technically, sciatica refers to pain caused by compression or irritation of one or more nerves exiting the lower spine that make up the sciatic nerve, and there are a number of different conditions that can cause this type of pain, including:
- Lumbar herniated disc, in which the interior of a spinal disc pushes outward, causing the disc to rupture or bulge onto a nearby nerve root, causing sciatica pain in the buttock and leg.
- Degenerative disc disease, in which gradual wear-and-tear on a disc causes instability at the spinal segment, which can in some cases pinch or irritate a nerve root.
- Facet joint osteoarthritis, or the wearing down of the spinal joints, which can cause bone spurs to develop on a vertebra and compress a nerve root.
- Sacroiliac joint dysfunction, characterized by too much or too little movement of the sacroiliac joints in the pelvis that aggravates the L4 and L5 nerve roots as they run in front of the joint.
- Piriformis syndrome, in which a small, thin muscle in the buttock tightens or spasms, pressing up against the sciatic nerve.
- Isthmic spondylolisthesis, in which the small bridge connecting the front and back portions of a vertebra (called the isthmus) breaks, causing the front of the vertebra (the vertebral body) to slip forward in the spinal column. When this happens, the gaps where nerve roots exit the spine become constricted, irritating the nerves and causing leg pain.
The sciatic nerve runs from the lower back through the back of each leg, and branches off to parts of the leg and to the foot and toes. Sciatic pain can be experienced anywhere along this nerve route, from the low back, the buttock, the back of the thigh, the calf, the foot or the toes.
Watch: Sciatic Nerve Anatomy Video
Additionally, tension in the hamstring muscles along the back of the thighs may contribute to sciatica pain, potentially making leg pain from a lower back condition worse.
See Sciatica Causes
Specific Sciatica Exercises Depend on the Cause of the Pain
It is important to first get an accurate diagnosis for the cause of sciatic pain for two reasons:
- The specific exercises recommended will be targeted for the underlying cause of the sciatica. For example, if leg pain is caused by instability from a degenerated spinal disc, exercises will generally focus on strengthening the spinal muscles to better support itself and reduce excessive micromotions.
- While rare, sciatic pain can be caused by some more serious medical conditions (such as an infection, tumor, or fracture) that require prompt medical attention.
Exercises for the common causes of sciatica or sciatica-like symptoms are explained in the remaining pages of this article. It is recommended that all patients consult a physician or chiropractor who specializes in spine medicine prior to beginning any exercise program.
Treating Sciatica is Part of a Daily Routine
To be effective, the sciatica exercises recommended for specific conditions must be done regularly (typically twice daily), and they must be done using the appropriate form. Close attention to posture and body mechanics is the key to both getting the maximum benefit from the exercises and preventing further injury or pain.
Continuing with a program of gentle exercise and stretching is beneficial for a current episode of sciatica but also for overall back health and for preventing or reducing future flare ups of sciatic pain.