Sciatica is a painful condition characterized by symptoms ranging from sharp pain through the lower spine, a stabbing sensation in the buttock, to knee or ankle pain, or even numbness or burning in the leg. Sciatic pain is common in individuals with lower back problems, the obese, pregnant women, and the elderly. Yoga can, however, provide relief from this condition which causes temporary but acute pain in nearly every adult at some point in their lives; sciatica can however cause debilitating pain if left untreated.
Many of us spend too much time sitting in chairs and this adds to the compression of the nerves in the lower spine, sciatica can stop us from doing basics tasks we enjoy and contributes to lost days of work and decreased employee productivity. Individuals who have sciatica are often crippled by it, and are driven to seek relief from conventional medical treatment, alternative therapies, and “miracle” cures. A basic program of yoga, moderate physical exercise and stretching throughout the day go a long way to preventing recurring sciatic pain.
Before starting a yoga program to treat your sciatica, it is important to have an understanding of the cause of your pain. The sciatic nerve is the largest and longest nerve in the body, running from the lower back down the back of the leg to the foot. Sciatica is a symptom of a problem at some point along the sciatic nerve rather than an ailment in and of itself. Seated forward bends, reclined & supported back bends, spine lengthening asanas and twists are the Rx for sciatic pain at YogaYak.com.
A herniated disc in the back can cause sciatica ; also, spinal stenosis and Piriformis Syndrome. For those with recurring sciatic pain, finding the specific action(s) that cause the pain can be mysterious and elusive. As always, a consistent program of moderate exercise to keep the body fit is the most effective tool against sciatica . The most common cause is a lumbar spine disorder, such as a herniated (slipped) disc in the lower back, or degenerative disc issues: These disorders not only cause lower back pain and stiffness, but compress the sciatic nerve. Disc degeneration is a normal part of aging but need not stop elderly yogis from practicing. Yoga Master B.K.S. Iyengar is still teaching in his 70’s though as a child he was prone to frequent illness; his practice of yoga has fortified his body so much that he is more supple and flexible than many young adults!
Another cause of sciatic pain is Piriformis Syndrome, which is a compression of the piriformis muscle located deep in the muscles of the buttocks under the Gluteus Maximus. When the piriformis becomes tight, it puts pressure on the sciatic nerve as it passes through the buttock. We often experience pain in the piriformis muscle when we have overdone exercise or heavy lifting (e.g., helping your friends move house – great karma yoga but not so good for the Piriformis!) This cause of sciatic pain often causes a sharp pain in the buttock, which is worsened with activities such as squatting and walking. .
When seeking medical treatment for lumbar spine disorders, many patients are told to lie on a firm surface to sleep (such as the floor or a very firm mattress) or are prescribed a back brace to restrict movement in the lower back. These can provide relief, but do not treat the cause of the problem. In extreme cases, doctors may recommend surgery. While surgery can provide relief of pain, it puts restrictions on your future activity level and lifestyle.
There is no guarantee that surgery will provide relief from your back and sciatic pain – it may give you relief initially, but many patients find that over time, their pain returns, often worse than before.
Consultation with both your doctor and your yoga instructor will help you determine the cause of your pain and the course of action required. It is important that you take an active role in your pain maintenance program; you know best what works well for your body. Once you know the cause, you will know which yoga postures can help and you will reduce the need to take any kind of pharmaceutical remedy; however, if your pain remains acute for more than 1-2 days or is so severe that it restricts normal every day activities, consult your doctor or chiropractor.
If your pain is caused by a lumbar spine disorder, asanas to lengthen and straighten the spine should be used (mountain, puppy dog, bound angle). Back bends (bridge, camel, cobra and fish) can also be helpful – if these are difficult for you to perform unaided, modify the poses and use supportive props wherever necessary.
Strengthening your core abdominal muscles is also essential to providing support for your spine and improving your posture – proper alignment will go a long way to avoiding a recurrence of the problem (boat, half boat, twists, reclined Cobblers Pose).
In cases caused by a tight Piriformis muscle, it is necessary to stretch the muscle to relieve the tightness so that it will no longer put pressure on the sciatic nerve. Yoga asanas to treat this type of sciatic pain should include those that will align the spine as outlined above, and those that will stretch the muscles in the hips and buttocks (knee down twist, prayer twist, pigeon, child pose, downward dog).
A combination of yoga asanas and meditation can provide partial to complete relief of sciatic pain.
Deep yogic breathing helps to relax the tight muscles and reduce inflammation. On an psychological level we subconsciously tense up in anticipation of pain, deep breathing reminds us to stop and be in the moment, sending healing prana to the parts of our body that are in distress. Much of Allopathic (Western) Medicine teaches us that we do not have the knowledge to heal our bodies; a combination of Western Medicine and holistic practice can be very effective way to treat the whole person, not merely the condition itself. For many people, a feeling of involvement and control over their healing and health is both inspiring and elevating for the spirit.
Always start out slow, and listen to your body. Do not hold the poses too long if you are experiencing pain and remember that there is no competition in yoga, beginning with yourself. Use props such as a strap and bolster if you need the extra support; you can use a scarf or belt as a strap and a stack of blankets or towels will do as a bolster if you do not have these props. Over time, you can go deeper into the pose, but never, never force yourself, you can make your pain worse by ignoring your body signals. There is no pain in yoga, and in terms of sciatic pain release of the pressure along the nerve is far more important than achieving a more advanced level of any yoga posture.
In addition to your yoga practice, do not sit for long periods, and avoid activities that worsen your pain. If your pain is acute, it is recommended to rest for 1-2 days before beginning your yoga practice and avoid forward bending poses, as these can worsen the pain, and approach side bending poses with caution.
We recommend Easy Groundwork With Diane as a place to begin; this is a mat based flow that gently opens the hips and features gentle twists that are soothing to the spine and bring calm warmth to the body and mind.
Yoga practice can enrich your life in many ways; keeping a supple spine, limber hamstrings and an open pelvis are part of any program to relieve the compression and tension of sciatica. Relax, listen to your body, and enjoy relief from your sciatic pain.