That lower back pain and leg numbness you've been feeling may well be sciatica. After your doctor verifies the condition, it's tempting to want to get stronger immediately. Yet some workouts can make sciatica worse, so it's important to know which sciatica exercises to avoid.
Stretching Sciatica Exercises to Avoid
Without question, touching your toes and doing other traditional lower-body stretches may be useful as preventative measures for back problems. After all, maintaining flexibility in your lower back can help keep you limber enough to do the workouts that maintain core strength. In turn, strengthening those supportive muscles can lower your risk of nerve compression, according to the Mayo Clinic.
But as treatments for an existing condition, many of these so-called gym exercises for sciatica may actually do more harm than good. Flexibility moves like reaching for your toes require bending your back forward. This stretching motion often aggravates bulging or herniated disks. It's worth asking your doctor or physical therapist which stretching activities to avoid with sciatica pain.
Use Caution Lifting Weights
With herniated discs being a major cause of sciatic pain, moves that aggravate the spine are obviously among the sciatica exercises to avoid. Although strong core muscles can help prevent nerve compression and other sciatica causes, addressing the problem by going for the deadlifts can do more harm than good.
One key reason? The American Council on Exercise notes that lifting heavy weights adds stress to the back as you're bending at the waist to lift. In addition, the sometimes-recommended gym exercises for sciatica actually increase your likelihood of body fatigue, which leads to lifting improperly — and aggravating existing back problems.
Beware of “Twisty” Sports
Jobs or sports that require twisting your torso may put you at risk for developing or aggravating sciatica. Be cautious when it comes to workouts or activities that incorporate twisting moves.
These repetitive-twisting activities to avoid with sciatica pain include soccer and ice hockey, along with tennis, basketball and paddleboarding. Strengthening moves that work the obliques through swiveling your torso might also need to be avoided.
You may find that your type of sciatica isn't bothered by the type of twisting that's required of your favorite activity. If that's the case, your doctor may give those workouts the stamp of approval. But if you feel twinges or numbness after these activities, discontinue them.
Don’t Take a Seat
The Cleveland Clinic points out that sitting for long periods of time can aggravate sciatica. Now might be a good time to rethink that long canoe or kayak trip. Both require staying in the seated position for long periods, sometimes without the chance to pull to shore to stretch your legs.
If you cycle, be aware that some people with sciatica find sitting on a bicycle for prolonged periods of time to be problematic. Frequent breaks may help. Consider, too, having your seat adjusted professionally, as well as pedaling with your backside off the seat from time to time.
Listen to Your Body
Sciatica affects people differently. Some experience it as numbness rather than sharp pain. It can bother you in the calf area and thigh, or your buttocks and lower back. Much of that variation has to do with the root cause of each patient's sciatica.
In addition, technically separate conditions such as piriformis syndrome can either directly affect the sciatic nerve, or mimic the symptoms, according to a 2018 textbook chapter published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Read more: Is it Okay to Exercise With a Pinched Nerve?
Because it's hard to predict where sciatica will strike, it's also not easy to be certain which moves may cause flare-ups. The most sensible approach is to stop doing any workouts that cause numbness and pain. That doesn't mean you can never play tennis again, for example. But it does indicate that working with a physical therapist to build strength and endurance can be the best first step.
- Mayo Clinic: "Sciatica"
- American Council on Exercise: "Low Back Exercises"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Sciatica Prevention"
- University of Maryland Medical Center: "Low Back Pain in Athletes"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Effect of Changing the Saddle Angle on the Incidence of Low Back Pain in Recreational Bicyclists"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Piriformis Syndrome"