Sciatica is a term often mistaken for as a medical condition. However, sciatica is a symptom of an underlying disorder that results from compression of the sciatic nerve, which originates in your spine and runs down the backs of your legs into your feet.
Water exercises to help sciatica nerve pain may provide some relief and strengthen the muscles surrounding your spine. Unlike traditional workouts, aquatic sciatica exercises are low-impact and gentler on your joints. This makes them safer for those struggling with neck or back pain and injuries.
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Although sciatic pain often improves with specific self-care techniques such as exercise, cold or hot packs and stretching, they're not a cure. Medication, physical therapy, epidural steroid injections and even surgery may sometimes be necessary for more serious cases.
Consult your doctor before you start water exercises to make sure that it's a safe activity for your condition.
What Is Sciatica?
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, according to the MedlinePlus.
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, and it's not uncommon to experience stabbing or shooting pain accompanied by "pins and needles," weakness and electric shock sensations.
The causes of sciatica range from pelvic fractures to slipped disks and spinal stenosis. Sometimes, the exact cause is unknown. Pregnant people are at higher risk of developing this condition, especially during the third trimester, notes the Cleveland Clinic. Additionally, if you have overweight or obesity, the extra weight may put pressure on your spine and raise your risk.
Treatment usually consists of rest, ice or heat therapy and non-steroidal 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.
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 walking in water can help strengthen your core and leg muscles, leading to improved balance.
The Mayo Clinic recommends first walking in waist-high water and then in deeper water as you get stronger. 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. You may also bring one knee to your chest or jog in place while standing in high-waist water.
Ideally, exercise in a heated or warm pool. Listen to your body and stop if your pain increases.
Is swimming good for sciatica? It certainly can be! Not only does aerobic exercise such as swimming promote the release of your body's natural pain-relieving chemicals known as endorphins, it may also help to reduce pain by taking pressure off your spinal nerves.
Swimming and other forms of water exercise promote feelings of weightlessness and buoyancy that counter the effects of gravity on your body while strengthening your muscles and keeping you physically active.
Though swimming for sciatica is generally a safe and beneficial form of exercise for lower back pain and sciatica, you may wish to avoid certain strokes, such as the overhead crawl, breaststroke and butterfly stroke, which can place strain on your back. The easiest and safest stroke for back-pain is the side stroke.
3. Water Aerobics
When the pain is less intense, you may want to try exercises included in water aerobics classes. Here are two options to start with.
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.
Over time, these simple movements may improve your flexibility and range of motion. Plus, you'll find it easier to stay active despite the pain in your lower back or leg.
How Does Exercise Help Ease Sciatica Pain?
Working out with sciatica can be painful. It 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.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Sciatica: Of All the Nerve"
- MedlinePlus: "Sciatica"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Is Your Leg Pain Sciatica or Something Else?"
- 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"