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Research Backs Yoga for Sciatica Pain, Which Poses Work

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Yoga, Research Backs Yoga for Sciatica Pain, Which Poses Work

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Living in pain can lower your quality of life. Everyday activities such as working, cleaning, and caring for your family become more difficult. Instead of engaging in your favorite hobbies, you spend your time attempting to ease the pain. One of the most common pains that fall into this category is sciatica.

What is Sciatica?

Harvard Medical School reports that approximately 40 percent of people will have sciatica at some point in their lives. Sciatica is diagnosed when there is pain in the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve begins in the lower back and extends down each leg, going through the hip flexor and glute regions. It is the longest nerve in the human body and enables messages to be passed back and forth between the spine, leg, and foot.

If this nerve is impinged or compressed, sciatica nerve pain results. A herniated disc in the lumbar spine can cause this type of pain. Sciatic pain can also be caused by inflammation in the lower spine. This can occur as a result of spinal degeneration. In rare cases, sciatica is a result of the presence of tumors, cysts, or abscesses on the spine that place pressure on the sciatic nerve.

Sciatica is sometimes confused with piriformis syndrome. Both conditions do impact the sciatic nerve. However, piriformis syndrome is caused when the nerve is compressed by the piriformis muscle. This is a deep gluteal muscle that goes from the lower spine to the upper femur. The sciatic nerve either goes through this muscle or rests below it. 

Common Sciatica Symptoms

How do you know if the pain you are experiencing is related to sciatica, or spine-based impingements on the sciatic nerve? One of the most common symptoms is pain that begins in your lower spine and extends down the back of your leg. Typically, sciatica pain is only felt on one side of the body, radiating down your right or left leg.

In some cases, this pain feels mild. It is classified as a discomfort or ache. In other cases, the pain is more intense. It feels like a bolt of electricity is being shot down your leg. It might also feel more like a burning sensation.

It is possible to experience muscle weakness along with sciatica pain. This muscle weakness can be felt in the leg or the foot. You may also notice that you have a tingling sensation in the muscle. Again, this sensation can occur in the leg or within your right or left foot.

Sitting for long periods of time can make these symptoms worse. So too can movements that jolt your body, such as coughing or sneezing. Mild cases of sciatic pain will generally resolve on their own. However, research has proven time and time again that yoga can help.

What Science Says About Yoga and Sciatica Pain Relief

One of the best ways to determine if a particular therapy is effective is to conduct studies. In the case of yoga easing sciatica, many have found positive results. Here are a few to consider:

  • A 2015 study involved 61 subjects with nonspecific low back pain or sciatica. Each also had a spinal disc extrusion or bulge. Half did yoga for three months. The other half served as a control and received “normal medical care.” At the end of the study, those doing yoga had lower pain and disability scores. 
  •  A 2018 study noted that 76.8 percent of individuals practicing yoga for 30 days experienced pain relief. Eight percent also had reduced levels of stiffness and 79.5 percent reported fewer “pricking” feelings.
  • A 2005 study compared yoga, exercise, and self-care for treating chronic low back pain. It included 101 adults, monitoring them over the course of 12 weeks. Researchers noted that those doing yoga had “superior” improvements in back function. Further, these results were still present at 26 weeks post-treatment.

4 Yoga Exercises Good for Sciatic Nerve Pain

Every yoga asana (pose) offers specific benefits. An asana that is beneficial for sciatica, thus providing pain relief, stretches and strengthens the area around the lower spine. There are a few poses that fall into this category.

#1: Seated twist pose with bent leg modification (Ardha Matsyendrasana)

The 2018 study previously mentioned utilized this pose, offering participants lower levels of nerve pain. It involves doing a seated twist pose except instead of extending one leg in front of you, it is bent at the knee so the foot rests under the opposing buttock. This pose is used to strengthen the muscles around the lumbar area of the spine. It also stretches the muscle within the hips.

#2: Wind removing pose (Pawanmuktasana)

The other posture used in the 2018 study was wind removing pose. This pose is also sometimes referred to as the gas release pose. It begins in a supine position before raising the legs off the floor and bringing the knees to the chest. Next, hug your knees with your arms, raising your head until your chin rests between your knees. Maintain this pose while breathing normally. In addition to strengthening the back, this pose improves digestion and blood circulation around the internal organs.

#3: Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

This pose is good for relieving back pain. Downward facing dog provides other benefits as well. These include being a good hamstring stretch and relieving fatigue and insomnia. It involves lifting your body off the yoga mat until you are in an inverted “V” position. Beginners can keep a bent knee if it is too difficult to fully straighten the legs.

#4: Reclined pigeon pose (Supta Kapotasana)

If you want a good sciatica stretch, this one delivers. It provides pain relief by opening tight hips. To do it, lie on your back with your legs extended. Bend your left knee and cross your left ankle over your body, resting it on your right thigh. With both hands, grab your right leg mid-hamstring and gently pull it toward you. Do this pose on the other side as well, resting your right ankle on your left thigh.

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Yoga, Research Backs Yoga for Sciatica Pain, Which Poses Work

When Using Yoga for Sciatica Pain

Some poses may need to be modified for the individual client. Pay attention to how your clients react to the poses you suggest. If they are aggravating the pain, either modify them or eliminate them completely. Everyone’s body is different, so it is important to only use poses that provide that client relief.

Additional Natural Ways to Relieve Sciatica Pain

Some research has found that combining yoga with massage is also effective for sciatic pain relief. One study was published in the International Journal of Yoga in 2013. Half of the participants performed two yoga posture sequences for 20 minutes a day for four weeks. The other half did the same but also engaged in Snehan, a form of massage using warm oil. Both groups reported experiencing pain relief.

A 2019 study researched the same issue but found slightly different results. Like the previous study, half of the participants practiced yoga and the other half combined yoga with massage. In this case, the second group—the ones using both yoga and massage—experienced greater pain relief than the yoga-only group.

The Mayo Clinic adds that using hot and cold packs can also help decrease sciatic pain. Alternative medicine options for sciatica include acupuncture and chiropractic. Another option is corrective exercises designed to increase core muscle strength. This helps keep the spine in alignment, reducing the likelihood that the sciatic nerve will become impinged. Prone leg lifts and upper back extension are two to consider.

If you are interested in learning more about how different yoga poses can help strengthen the back and core, the ISSA offers Yoga Instructor certification. As a yoga therapist, you can help students who suffer from all types of pain. Yoga offers benefits for everyone, no matter their fitness level or physical limitations.

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