Water therapy for sciatica pain may provide some relief and strengthen the muscles surrounding your spine. Unlike traditional workouts, aquatic exercises are gentler on the joints and bones. This makes them safer for those struggling with neck or back pain and injuries.
What Is Sciatica?
About 40 percent of people will experience sciatica pain at some point, reports Harvard Medical School. The risk increases with age and tends to be higher among those suffering from acute or chronic back pain. If you're obese, the extra weight may put pressure on your spine and raise your risk of developing this condition.
As its name suggests, sciatica is related to the sciatic nerve, which runs from the hips and lower back and to your feet. This is the largest nerve in your body and carries signals from the brain to the legs and feet, explains the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Certain injuries and conditions may irritate the sciatic nerve, causing severe pain, numbness, tingling and other symptoms.
The causes of sciatica range from pelvic fractures to slipped disks and spinal stenosis. Sometimes, the exact cause is unknown. Pregnant women are at higher risk of developing this condition, especially during the third trimester, notes the Cleveland Clinic.
Sciatica pain tends to occur on one side and may radiate to the lower back, legs, calves or feet. Its intensity varies throughout the day. It's not uncommon to experience stabbing or shooting pain accompanied by "pins and needles," weakness and electric shock sensations. In general, most symptoms subside within four to six weeks, but it may take you longer to recover fully.
Treatment usually consists of rest, ice or heat therapy and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Steroid injections are prescribed in severe cases, but may not work for everyone. The same goes for steroid pills. Additionally, these treatment options carry potential side effects and may not be worth the risk.
Does Exercise Help?
Working out with sciatica can be painful. This condition limits your mobility, making it difficult to move around. Simple things like walking and standing may seem impossible when the pain is at its peak. However, you still need to exercise to strengthen the affected area and regain your mobility.
According to Harvard Medical School, low-impact exercise may help. Back stretches, yoga, aqua exercises for sciatica and other gentle activities may reduce the occurrence and intensity of sciatica pain. For best results, incorporate low-impact exercises and daily stretches into your routine.
Another option to consider is physiotherapy. This form of treatment may help relieve sciatica pain and discomfort, improve spinal movement and enhance your quality of life, reports a July 2017 study in Physiotherapy Research International. Although it's unlikely to eliminate the need for surgery in severe cases, therapy can make it easier to manage your symptoms.
The best water exercises for lower back pain may help with sciatica too. According to a small study published in the journal Physical Therapy in March 2019, water exercises are less likely to cause back pain compared to similar land exercises. Furthermore, this form of training puts less stress on the joints and may help improve your balance and range motion. Exercising in warm water promotes muscle relaxation, which may further ease the pain.
The above study was conducted on individuals with mild to moderate chronic lower back pain, which differs from sciatica. However, it emphasizes the potential benefits of water therapy compared to traditional exercises.
Water Exercises for Sciatica Pain
Consider working with a physical therapist specialized in water therapy. This way, you'll learn how to safely perform water exercises for sciatica pain and modify them according to your needs.
For example, your physiotherapist may recommend aquatic vertical traction. This method may help reduce lower back pain and sciatica symptoms, although more research is needed to confirm its efficacy.
In the meantime, you can try some water exercises on your own, even if you don't know how to swim. Simply walking in water can help strengthen your core and leg muscles, leading to improved balance.
Read more: Sciatica Exercises to Avoid
The Mayo Clinic recommends first walking in waist-high water and then in deeper water as you progress. Brace your core and swing your arms to maintain good posture. Those who don't know how to swim should wear a flotation vest. Consider wearing hand webs to make the exercise more challenging.
Here are other water exercises you can try when the pain is less intense:
Move #1: Arm Exercises
- Stand in waist-high water, with your arms at your sides and close to your body; make sure your palms are facing forward.
- Flex your arms until your forearms reach the level of the water.
- Push your hands down so that your arms are fully extended while switching direction.
- Consider wearing hand webs for increased resistance.
Move #2: Water Leg Raises
- Stand in high-waist water, with your back to the side of the pool.
- Place your hands on the edge for support.
- Bring one leg in front of you; extend it fully and then flex your knee to a 90-degree angle.
- Lower your leg and repeat.
- Wrap a water noodle around your foot to make the movement more challenging.
- Repeat with the other leg.
You may also bring one knee to your chest or jog in place while standing in high-waist water. Stretching is an option too. Ideally, exercise in a heated pool. Listen to your body, and stop if your pain increases.
Over time, these simple movements may improve your flexibility and range of motion. Plus, you'll find easier to stay active despite the pain in your lower back or leg.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Sciatica: Of All the Nerve"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Sciatica"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Is Your Leg Pain Sciatica or Something Else?"
- NHS: "Sciatica"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Back Pain: What You Can Expect From Steroid Injections"
- Physiotherapy Research International: "Physiotherapy for Patients With Sciatica Awaiting Lumbar Micro‐Discectomy Surgery: A Nested, Qualitative Study of Patients' Views and Experiences"
- Physical Therapy: "Muscle Activity During Aquatic and Land Exercises in People With and Without Low Back Pain"
- Journal of Aquatic Physical Therapy: "The Effectiveness of Aquatic Vertical Traction on Lower Back Pain and Associated Sciatica"
- Mayo Clinic: "Aquatic Exercises"