Sciatica is tenderness and pain anywhere along the sciatic nerve, typically showing up on one side of the body.
There are two sciatic nerves—one for each leg. These are the longest nerves in the human body. Each originates from several nerve roots that exit from the spinal cord, then thread through apertures in your sacrum and merge to form the main body of the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve passes between layers of the deep buttock muscles (gluteus medius and gluteus maximus), through the deep muscles of the back of the thigh, and down through the outer edge of your leg to your foot.
Symptoms of Sciatica Pain can include:
- Pain anywhere along the sciatic nerve pathway: in the lower back, buttock, back of the thigh, and/or calf.
- Fatigue, numbness, or loss of feeling in your legs and/or feet.
- An electric, tingling, burning, pinching, or pins-and-needles feeling is known as paresthesia.
- Weakness that can cause your knees to buckle when you stand up from sitting.
- Foot drop: a condition in which you are not able to flex your ankles enough to walk on your heels.
- Reduced reflexes in your Achilles tendon and knee.
The F.A.I.R. test
You can also try the F.A.I.R. test (in which the thigh is Flexed, Adducted, and Internally Rotated): Lie on your side with the affected leg on top. Is it painful in your hip to have the top leg bent with the knee resting on the floor in front of you? Does it hurt especially when you try to lift your knee away from the floor against a small amount of resistance, such as a bag of rice? Sharp pain in the hip is a sign that the piriformis may be causing sciatica.
Yoga Asana to Relieve Sciatica
Hamstring stretches play a major role in relieving sciatica pain.
If the source of your sciatica is a herniated or bulging disk, a yoga practice that progresses from gentle poses to basic foundational asanas like standing poses, and the downward-facing dog will align, lengthen, and strengthen your lower back. Yoga can help you manage and reduce the problems caused by herniation, sometimes even reducing the herniation itself. However, it’s important to check with your doctor about the severity of the herniation: in some cases, surgery may be required.
If the source of your sciatica is pressure on the nerve due to a short, tight piriformis, focus on stretching this muscle. Your approach should be gentle and progressive, since overworking the piriformis may lead to spasms and deep buttock pain, which may or may not be accompanied by sciatic pain.
A simple half spinal twist(ardha matsyendrasana) gives the piriformis a mild stretch that encourages it to release and lengthen, and the intensity can be progressively increased as you approach the full pose. Stretching the muscle too aggressively can provoke sciatic pain, so it’s important to proceed carefully, using the following variations and adjusting the pose so that you feel minimal discomfort.
Sitting Spinal Twist
- Sit on the corner of a folded blanket with your knees bent and your feet on the floor in front of you. Take your right foot under your left knee and around to the outside of your left hip. Your right knee should point straight forward.
- For the mildest hip stretch, place your left foot on the floor to the inside of your right knee, so that the left foot is roughly in line with your left hip; for a stronger stretch, place your left foot to the outside of your right knee. It’s likely that your left sit bone is now lighter on the floor than your right.
Lean onto your left sit bone to balance the weight between the two hips; this is the beginning of the stretch.
- Steady yourself by holding your left knee with your hands, and from this balanced foundation, inhale and lengthen upward through your spine. If the stretch is too intense or if you feel pain radiating down your leg, increase the height of the padding under your hips until the stretch is tolerable.
- If you don’t feel a stretch in your left hip, gently pull your left knee across the midline of your body toward the right side of your chest, keeping your sit bones equally grounded, and resist your thigh slightly against the pull of your hands. This action will help keep your sit bone grounded and increase the stretch to the piriformis.
- Stay in the pose anywhere from 20 seconds to a couple of minutes, then repeat on the other side.
Do two to four sets at a time. As your piriformis muscles stretch out over time, gradually decrease the height of your blankets until you can sit on the floor.
In the full version of ardha matsyendrasana, your upper body turns toward the upright knee. To help your upper body turn fully, place your left hand on the floor behind you; continue to hold your left knee with your right hand. Keep your heart lifted and keep the natural inward curve in your lower back. Use your inhalation to lift, lengthen, and expand; use your exhalation to twist without rounding your back.
Deepen the action on the piriformis by increasing the resisted abduction of the thigh, while releasing any tightness in the groin. As you twist, use your hand on your left knee to gently draw or hug that knee toward your chest. Let your inner thigh or groin relax, allowing it to soften and melt downward toward the sit bone. As you draw the knee toward your chest with resistance, your thigh bone laterally releases out at the hip, pressing against the piriformis and encouraging it to release.
The twist deepens as you draw your knee into your elbow or take your upper arm to the outside of your knee. At this point, as you press your knee against the arm to leverage a deeper twist, the pose becomes more active in the hip and less effective as a piriformis release.
Note: If you’re suffering from piriformis syndrome, you certainly don’t want to tighten this muscle further, so it’s best not to try to go so deeply into the twist!
- The standing twist is a milder standing version of the stretch in ardha matsyendrasana. Like the F.A.I.R. test, it brings the thigh into adduction and internal rotation.
- Place a chair against the wall. To stretch your right hip, stand with your right side next to the wall. Place your right foot on the chair, with your knee bent to roughly 90 degrees.
- Keep your standing leg straight, and steady your balance by placing your right hand on the wall. Lift your left heel up high, coming onto the mounds of the toes, and turn your body toward the wall, using your hands for balance.
- As you exhale, lower your left heel to the floor, maintaining the twist. Allow your right hip to descend, keeping your hips relatively level. Hold for several breaths.
In general, sciatic pain is helped by poses that passively stretch the hip with the thigh externally rotated, but not from poses such as baddha konasana (cobbler’s pose) which actively rotate the thigh outward and thus tighten the deep hip rotators.
Other Hip opening Poses include:
- Modified Gomukhasana
- Pigeon Hip Stretch