Have you ever experienced pain on one side of your butt or hip that radiates down your leg? Get-Fit Guy, Dr. Jonathan Su, gives you the scoop on a commonly overlooked cause of sciatica and 3 simple exercises that'll help relieve your pain.
Have you ever experienced pain on one side of your butt or hip that radiates down your leg? Describe this pattern of pain to your primary care clinician and I bet you’ll be told that you have sciatica, a relatively common condition that up to 40% of people will suffer from at some point in life.
Your clinician will likely explain that sciatica is caused by irritation, inflammation, pinching, or compression of a nerve in the lower back from a herniated or slipped disc. They may ask you to avoid certain activities, prescribe you meds, and refer you to a physical therapist or a spine specialist.
Like any well-informed patient in the digital age, you do your own homework by Googling “sciatica” and all the top search results, each from highly reputable sources, confirm that the pain you’re experiencing is coming from your spine. At this point, most people would feel anxious, worried, or scared because sciatica sounds pretty serious. I know I would be!
But what if I told you that sciatica may not be a result of a herniated disc or even have anything to do with your spine? What if I also told you that 3 simple exercises may quickly and effectively reduce or eliminate sciatica symptoms in a few short weeks?
As a physical therapist, sciatica is one of the most common conditions that I see and I get several new cases every week from clients young and old.
The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It begins at the lower part of your spinal cord, travels through your hips and buttocks, runs along the back of each thigh and leg, and terminates in your foot. Sciatica refers to pain that radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve when the nerve is irritated.
Sciatica is commonly attributed to prolonged sitting, heavy lifting, increased stress on the spine from obesity, damage to the nerves from diabetes, and age-related changes to the spine. Up until relatively recently, the spine was considered to be the main source of sciatica caused when a herniated disk or some other structure in the spine presses on the nerve.
However, one study that looked at the spine of 215 participants with sciatica using advanced imaging techniques failed to show that the spine was the cause in nearly half of the participants. So if not the spine, what can we attribute sciatica to?
Deep gluteal syndrome
Deep gluteal syndrome is a lesser-known cause of sciatica caused by compression of the sciatic nerve by the muscles in the deep gluteal space. The deep gluteal space lies between your gluteus maximus, a.k.a. your buttocks muscle, on the back of your pelvis and the bone that protrudes out the side of the upper part of your femur or thigh bone known as the greater trochanter.
Studies suggest that the muscles in this region known as the deep gluteal muscles may irritate the sciatic nerve if they’re dysfunctional. From my experience, I find that targeted strengthening and stretching of these muscles along with sciatic nerve stretching has been an effective combination for reducing or eliminating symptoms of sciatica for many of my clients.
When to seek medical attention
It’s important to know that sciatica can sometimes be a result of a serious issue. Please seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms:
Your pain is excruciating or is a result of a severe injury.
Your pain, weakness, or numbness extends into your foot and is coupled with the inability to lift your ankle or toe.
You’re unable to control your bladder or bowels.
3 simple exercises for sciatica pain relief
Here are 3 exercises that’ll help you quickly and effectively reduce or eliminate sciatica caused by deep gluteal syndrome. Perform 3 to 4 sets of each exercise twice daily. Be sure to check out my YouTube videos for instructions on how to perform these exercises.
This exercise will help strengthen your deep gluteal muscles.
Lay on your side with your symptomatic side on top. Your body should be in a straight line with your legs extended and feet stacked on top of each other. Bend your knees 90 degrees so that your body forms the shape of the letter “L”. This is the starting position.
Begin exercising by lifting your top knee while keeping your feet in place so that your legs look like a clamshell opening up. Be sure to perform this motion without your hips rolling backward. Work your way up to 15 reps and wrap a resistance band around your knees to increase the challenge.
Single leg tuck
This exercise will also help strengthen your deep gluteal muscles.
Lay on your side with your symptomatic side on top. Your body should be in a straight line with your legs extended and feet stacked on top of each other. Lift your top leg up to hip width distance (about six to eight inches) from your bottom leg. This is the starting position.
Begin exercising by simultaneously flexing the hip and knee of your top leg forward in a tucking motion until they’re at 90 degrees. Take 3 seconds to get to the top of the movement, hold there for 3 seconds, take 3 seconds to return to the starting position, and hold there for 3 seconds while keeping your legs hip-width distance apart. Work your way up to 15 reps and add ankle weights to increase the challenge.
Single leg over stretch
This exercise will help stretch your sciatic nerve.
Lie on your back with your symptomatic leg bent 90-degrees at the hip and knee. Take the hand on the opposite side of your bent leg and place it on top of the bent knee. Pull your knee straight across your body toward the opposite hip while keeping the shoulders on the floor. Straighten your knee until you feel a good stretch in your hip or butt. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.
5-day sciatica pain relief challenge
Let’s put this knowledge to use with a 5-day sciatica pain relief challenge! Over the next five days, your challenge is to perform the 3 exercises suggested in this post. Give it a try and let me know how you feel by emailing me at email@example.com or leaving me a voicemail at 510-353-3104.