Of all of the back and lower leg conditions out there, sciatica has to be one of the most irritating. Caused when your sciatic nerve becomes compressed or injured, sciatica (which refers to the symptom of this impact on the nerve, and not a condition in itself) can result in pain down the leg that can be triggered by something as simple as standing (per Penn Medicine).
Sciatica can be caused by several different medical conditions — and unfortunately, a lot of the time, you just have to wait it out. Unless your sciatica requires further treatment, it will usually clear up within six weeks, provided you’re not aggravating it further (via Medical News Today). Now, we don’t know about you, but that feels like a long time to us.
The good news, though, is that it’s possible to make your life with sciatica more stress-free than you might think. The secret is to avoid a few key things that might feel innocuous when you’re not experiencing leg pain, but can be the worst thing you can do when you have sciatica. Let’s take a look at the things you should be avoiding when you have sciatica.
Don’t do specific weightlifting exercises
Staying active is one of the touchstones of good health, but when you have sciatica, it can be slightly more complicated to achieve. The key, though, is to avoid certain activities that could aggravate your sciatica further. A lot of these may be present in your average resistance training circuit. While weightlifting can be great for several reasons (and can be especially good for your back in certain situations), when you have sciatica or another nerve compression issue, weight training could just make things worse (per Spine-Health).
This effect can be particularly pronounced when you’re doing certain moves. Doing squats, for example, may cause the nerves in your lower back to become even more compressed and potentially impact your spinal discs, leading to further problems (per Advanced Back Rehab). This is made worse if you add weights into the mix, which will further increase the pressure on your spine. Deadlifts can also create undue pressure on your spine and back and lead to additional issues. And doing bent-over rows to work on your back muscles can quickly turn sour, as the position you have to take to do them may damage your back even more.
Skip that bike ride
Sciatica can be stressful, folks. And when you’re feeling a little frazzled, what better is there to do than to jump on your bike and get out into the open world? Well, unfortunately, it’s one of the last things you should be doing when you have sciatic pain.
When you sit on a bike, you assume a natural leaning posture that may cause your sciatic nerve to be pinched even further, Healthline says. This is made even worse when you’re sitting on an uncomfortable bike saddle with little cushioning, or if your bike handles are positioned at the wrong height.
If you must cycle, however, or if you’re looking to avoid developing sciatica during your cycling regimen, it’s useful to get the right equipment. Start with your saddle. "One with a cut-out and sway-back can really help as it promotes a neutral lumbar spine, or flat lower back," states Sydney-based physiotherapist and bike fitter Elliot Denver (via Bicycling Australia). "If the rider gets fatigued or lazy, they will tend to flex the lower back i.e. round forward which stresses the lumbar spine joints and can exacerbate sciatica symptoms." Keeping your spine neutral, though, may stop symptoms from developing or worsening.
Don’t smoke when you have sciatica
There are many, many reasons why you shouldn’t smoke (per the CDC), and if we started listing them, we’d be here all day. But if you needed another reason to give it up, knowing that it might make sciatica symptoms worse may just be the push you needed.
Research published in The American Journal of Medicine displays that smokers appear to have a higher risk of sciatica (and lower back pain in general). This could be due to the toxic compounds that you’re breathing in whenever you smoke, which can wreak havoc on your cells and hasten spinal disc and blood vessel degeneration (per the Desert Institute for Spine Care).
When you smoke, the nicotine you consume can also make your blood vessels more narrow. This creates a problem when it comes to sciatica, as to heal effectively, your body needs a constant and healthy flow of blood. The research published in The American Journal of Medicine points out that stopping smoking may not get rid of the risk of developing sciatica in the future, but it does seem to bring it down.
Try not to sit down all day
Okay, so a lot of us do a lot of sitting down. We know that, and we also know that depending on your job, this could be inescapable. However, if you have sciatica, you must try not to stay in a seated position for hours on end.
Unfortunately, sitting down can create pressure on the sciatic nerve, because a seated position increases the load on your lower back (per Spine-Health). This means that doing something such as taking a seat in the office could actually be worsening your condition.
The good news, though, is that there are a few ways to circumvent this while you’re trying to get through a day of work. Make sure that you’re taking breaks from a sitting position by getting up and walking around every hour or so. Not only will this relieve pressure on your lower back, but it will also encourage blood flow to help your condition heal. You might also want to consider switching to a standing desk while you have sciatic pain, as the shape your body takes when standing up with good posture can take the strain away from your lower back.
Don’t bend forward
If you’ve ever had sciatica, you’ll know how the smallest movements can seem to trigger a flare-up of pain. And one of those movements is something that we can do multiple times a day: Bending forward.
"Bending forward to pick up an object increases shearing forces on the spine caused by the gravity that our muscles and ligaments have to resist while in the forward flexed position," explains Montefiore Health System Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation’s attending physician Adeepa Singh (via Spine Universe). And if you’re bending over to pick something heavy up, this just creates even more stress on your spine and lower back, further worsening your condition.
But you can’t just go through life without ever bending down to get stuff, right? What if you drop your phone, or need to pick up the cat? Singh recommends trying to adapt your bending style to take the stress off your back. Try to generate maximum movement through your legs, lowering down in a squat while keeping your back straight instead of hinging at the waist. For jobs that might take multiple bends (like taking your clothes out of the washing machine), see if someone can help you out.
You shouldn’t slouch when you walk
It’s easy to have bad posture habits. And we get it: Having to think about posture all the time is hard work, and sooner or later, things can slip. This can be a real problem when it comes to sciatica, though, as posture can significantly affect how bad its symptoms are, according to Spine-Health.
When you slouch or hunch your back over while walking (also known as having a "kyphotic posture,") you can create additional pressure on your core, which may impact your lower back and increase sciatic pressure. The same thing can happen, unfortunately, when you’re trying to combat this too much. By standing or walking with a particularly flat back, you can both generate more load on your lower back and tire it out, which spells bad news for sciatica symptoms. Also, pay attention to what you’re doing with your lower back while you walk: If you push your abdomen or your pelvis forward while you’re moving around, you increase tension and load in the lower back, and your spine can be impacted. All of this — you guessed it! — leads to more sciatic pain.
So how do you combat this? Just keep your posture neutral, folks. Ensure that your back remains relaxed and following its natural curve, while your neck and head remain free and easy, not jutting forward or leaning back too much. Keep your paces at a reasonable distance while walking, with your legs under your hips.
Don’t skip your ab workout
When you have sciatica, it can be seriously tempting to forego doing any exercise and put your feet up. And while it is important to avoid certain exercises, one part of your body you shouldn’t stop paying attention to is your abs. Keeping the abs and the rest of the core muscles strong can provide stability to the back, which can help people with sciatica to bounce back faster while limiting the potential for another bout of the condition (via Spine-Health).
How you work out your abs and core, however, is crucial. "Target your core, both the front and back. Plank positions will optimally strengthen your midsection," states sports medicine physician Jordan Metzl (via Prevention). Starting with a simple plank for around 30 seconds can help you start to build up your core strength, extending the length of the exercise as you get stronger. Whatever you do, though, don’t be tempted by sit-ups. A sit-up movement introduces a bend into the body, which "will put pressure on the nerve and cause additional pain," Metzl states. Crunches and crunch variations, like bicycle crunches, will do a similar thing.
Don’t be tempted by junk food
So you have sciatica, and it sucks. Hey, we feel you. It’s not fun. But we also know that it can be very easy to start to feel sorry for yourself when you have sciatic pain and reach for some comfort foods. Bear in mind, though, that eating a diet consisting largely of junk food probably won’t do your sciatica any favors and may even aggravate your symptoms further, as chiropractor Barry Goldstein points out. Instead, it’s better to keep your diet as nutritious as possible to aid your body in its recovery, and to prioritize eating specific kinds of healthy foods.
Try finishing your meal with a portion of pineapple, for example. Pineapple is full of an enzyme called bromelain, which may be instrumental in bringing down inflammation throughout the body, potentially assisting with sciatica pain (per Health Central). Drinking a few cups of tea in place of coffee could also help to expedite your recovery, thanks to tea’s anti-inflammatory effects.
It should be noted, though, that any dietary changes should be made after consulting with your doctor, and only alongside the treatment that your physician or physical therapist has recommended that you follow. Be sure to check with them about any interactions between new foods and medication, too.
Whatever you do, don’t just ignore it
While sciatica can be incredibly painful for some people, for others it may just manifest as a minor, irritating ache (per the Cleveland Clinic). And in situations like this, it might be tempting to just power through the pain and do everything you’d normally do. After all, you worked out when your muscles were sore that one time, and it wasn’t that bad … So this is the same, right? Unfortunately, this isn’t quite the case.
"I would say sciatica pain or nerve pain is not a ‘good pain’ like sore muscles that people should power through," warns Texas Orthopedics’ physical medicine and rehabilitation physician Ai Mukai (via Spine Universe). Mukai stresses that it’s vital to pause any activities that trigger sciatic pain, as this may just exacerbate the problem.
Instead, try to treat your sciatica as quickly as possible. Tackling your sciatica should always be done in consultation with a doctor, who will give you the strategy to start dealing with your pain, often through specific exercises or medication (via the NHS). If your sciatica is especially bad, your doctor might recommend further treatment in the form of injected medicine or even surgery.
Don’t attend that HIIT class
Few things make you sweat like an HIIT class does, and for many people, it’s their go-to exercise. But if you have sciatica, you’ll want to pause your HIIT studio membership until you’re fully healed. High-impact exercise activity can place a large amount of stress on your body, and combined with the often-quick pace of HIIT workouts, this can end up aggravating your sciatica (via Healthline). This is the case not just with HIIT workouts, but also with a range of high-impact sports like volleyball, basketball, tennis, and soccer, all of which can create issues.
Additionally, specific exercises included in an HIIT workout may be particularly bad for sciatic pain. Burpees, for example, are one move that can be especially harmful. Burpees involve bending down and jumping back up, both of which can place stress on the sciatic nerve — and during an HIIT workout, you’re likely to have to do them repeatedly. We’d say this is a great opportunity to take a break from all that jumping, folks. Who likes burpees, anyway?
You might want to give that jog a miss
For a lot of people, a morning jog is as sacred to their routine as a cup of cocoa before bed. If you have sciatica, though, you may feel better quicker if you hang up your running shoes for a few weeks.
"Things that induce compressions within your back, like landing on a hard surface repeatedly, will cause these things to worsen," states sports medicine physician Jordan Metzl (via Prevention). And given that you likely rack up thousands of steps when you run, you can see how that repetitive impact on your lower back can cause discomfort and pain.
If you feel like you can’t live without your daily run, however, Metzl does have some tips that could ease the burden on your back a little. If you make your stride a little shorter than usual, you can reduce the amount that you bounce off the floor, which relieves some stress on your lower back. If you normally run on roads or sidewalks, it may also be a good idea to seek out a park to jog in. Lastly, running on grass instead of concrete could ease pressure not just on your back, but on your feet as well, as a study published in Research in Sports Medicine shows.
Avoid shoveling snow
It’s finally happened, folks: The snow’s arrived. That time of year has come again, and with it comes the endless management of said snow around your property. This typically involves a very large shovel and a lot of work. But if you have sciatica, we hereby permit you — nay, we urge you – to delegate your shoveling duties to someone else, as it’s not going to do your back any favors.
The reason for this is that shoveling snow involves a lot of bending over, picking things up, and twisting the spine using sudden movements. All of these can worsen sciatica and back pain, according to the Spine Institute of North America. The twisting action that shoveling snow often requires places particular pressure on your spinal discs, which can herniate (a common cause of sciatica). None of this is helped by the fact that the conditions for shoveling snow are by their very nature cold, which puts your muscles at greater risk of injury. Kind of a bad combo, right?
If you absolutely have to shovel snow, though, there are a few things you can do that’ll help. Make sure you wrap up warm and do some light movement or stretching beforehand, so your muscles are kept warm and loose. Take things slow and keep your shoveling fluid, ensuring that you squat down to pick up the snow, instead of bending at the waist to do so.
Try to avoid stress
Sciatica can be stressful. Constant pain in your back and legs that seems to be triggered by the simplest of actions? It’s not fun at all. It’s worth noting, though, that how you manage stress when you have sciatica could have a huge effect on your pain. When you’re stressed, your body undergoes a series of physical responses, one of which is to reduce the amount of oxygen your nerves receive (via AICA Orthopedics). The less oxygen your sciatic nerve gets, the more likely it is to become painful. Stress can also affect your muscles, making them tighter, which may make your pain even worse (per WebMD).
While simply saying "don’t be stressed" is not the answer, there are several strategies that may help bring down anxiety levels. Try practicing some deep breathing, or avoid situations or triggers that you know will increase your stress levels. If your stress is becoming especially difficult to manage, speak with your healthcare provider about potential strategies for managing stress. They may be able to refer you to a specialist (such as a cognitive behavioral therapist) who can help you develop ways to manage emotional anxiety.
Avoid hamstring stretches
One common feature of sciatica is a shooting pain that goes down the length of your hamstring. A lot of people might assume that the way to deal with this is through a hamstring stretch. But while this may seem like an intuitive way to manage hamstring pain due to sciatica, a lot of those stretches are best avoided, as they may make your condition worse, according to Baptist Health’s Miami Neuroscience Institute Spine Center’s medical director Ronald Tolchin (via Spine Universe). The simple act of a forward fold to touch your toes or a downward dog can put pressure on your sciatic nerve and lengthen the time you’ll take to recover.
There is one hamstring stretch out there, though, that could be helpful. A standing hamstring stretch — where you place one straightened leg on an elevated surface, the other planted firmly on the ground, and stretch over the extended leg for 20-30 seconds — can be a good way to loosen up your hamstrings and potentially help your sciatica (per Medical News Today). Also, there’s no need to stop exercising entirely when you have sciatica. A simple walk every day can be a great way to keep your muscles tended to and warm when recovering, Tolchin states.