Sciatica can be excruciating and sometimes you need to see your MD for treatment. However, in most instances, the pain goes away by itself and it can be relieved by certain stretches—usually in combination with anti-inflammatory painkillers and/or natural anti-inflammatories. This is because stretches create mobility in the lower back and hips, where the sciatic nerve tends to get pinched. As the nerve goes down into your legs though, stretching the legs can also help alleviate the pain.
So, let’s have a look at some stretches for the elderly to relieve sciatica.
Warning: The first time you perform these exercises, it’s good to have someone with you in case you need assistance getting up from a pose. It’s also always good to have something you can pull yourself up with, in case you’re bending forward, or performing a pose on the floor. Remember to keep your cell phone next to you in case you need to phone for help.
Even if you’re very fit, if you have sciatica, you might end up with sudden excruciating pain that can make it difficult to move.
Also, if you have low blood pressure, getting up after bending over can lead to blood draining from your head too fast, making you dizzy—you can even faint. So slowly come up.
Lastly, with any stretch you do, don’t put too much pressure to start—you don’t want to overdo it and end up in pain. Rather notice how you slowly become more flexible over time.
1. Lower Back Stretch
To get more mobility in your lower back, try this simple lower back stretch. It can be performed either sitting or lying down.
If lying down, use your bed, or the floor if you’re comfortable with lying on a yoga mat or similar, and find it easy to get up again (you can also use something to support you when getting up).
- Lie down flat on your back
- Bend your knees toward your chest, keeping your feet together
- Slowly lower your legs to the left (while still keeping your knees bent and your legs together) and hold for twenty to thirty seconds
- Do the same on the right-hand side
- If you want you can repeat this twice
The upper back and your head should remain still so that you are facing the ceiling as you turn from one side to the other with your hips and legs.
If you prefer to do this sitting:
- Grab a chair and sit with your feet firmly on the ground and your back as straight as possible
- Turning to the right, grab hold of your right knee with your left hand and grab the back of your chair with your right hand as you look over your shoulder
- Hold for about twenty to thirty seconds
- Turn and repeat by grabbing your left knee with your right hand and the back of your chair with the left hand while turning as if to look behind you/over your shoulder on the left
- Hold for twenty seconds
- If you want you can repeat this twice
You may want to alternate between sitting down and lying on your back. Or, you could try this mild excercise:
2. Flexion Stretch
This stretch will help you stretch your lower back and pelvis. It requires a chair.
- Grab a chair and sit at the edge of your seat, back straight, and with your feet hip-width apart and firmly on the ground
- Put your hands on the back of your thighs
- Slide your hands down the back of your legs as you bend forward
- Go as far forward as you find comfortable—if possible you’ll be placing your torso on the top of your thighs
- Slowly come back up, bringing your head up last (be sure to move really slowly if you have low blood pressure and are prone to get dizzy when standing up)
- If you find it hard to get up, have something in front of you that you can pull yourself up with
You can repeat this stretch a few times a day.
3. Pelvic Tilt
This is an exercise that will once again help bring movement to your pelvis. It’s important that when you perform this exercise you use your core muscles, not your legs to push you up.
The pelvic tilt exercise is performed lying down on a firm surface—a yoga mat on the floor is preferred. However, if you find it hard to get off the floor, use a firm bed, or even a couch! Just be sure it isn’t so soft your legs wobble.
- Lie down on your back on a flat, firm, surface
- Bend your knees, keeping your legs hip-width apart, placing your feet firmly on the surface with your toes pointing away from you (straight, in other words)
- Pull your belly buttons down, toward the flat surface you are lying on, and contract your buttocks so that your pelvis rises, while your upper back is pushed downward
- Hold for ten to twenty seconds (aim for twenty) and repeat up to ten times in a row, relaxing in between
Note: Your pelvis doesn’t move far off the ground—if you are pushing your legs down hard, you can go a lot higher, but that’s not the point here—that’s the next exercise!
The pelvic tilt is really the beginning of moving into bridge position, but you use slightly different muscles as you also engage your leg muscles in this exercise. Again, it provides movement for your pelvis though.
You need a firm surface for this exercise. A wobbly mattress won’t be any good, but if your bed or couch is very firm it might work.
- Lie on your back on a firm surface
- Bend your legs, putting your feet firmly on the surface, toes pointing away from you (straight forward)
- Make sure your knees and feet are hip-width apart
- Pull your bellybutton down, contracting your stomach and buttocks, while lifting your pelvis slightly off the ground
- Engage your leg muscles and push through your feet as you raise your pelvis toward the ceiling
- Stop as your pelvis and lower torso reach the same height as your knees (if you can get that high)
- Hold for five to ten seconds, depending on your strength
- Repeat ten to twenty times, depending on your ability
Note: Rather be safe than sorry. You want to gradually increase both flexibility and strength. Going too fast will do more harm than good. The first time you try these exercises you might just want to do an exercise once or, twice. Then three times for a couple of days before you move onto four. You get the idea.
5. Hamstring Stretch
There are various ways to stretch your hamstrings, depending on your strength and flexibility.
Let’s start with the easiest one—sitting on a chair.
- Grab a chair and sit on the edge of the chair with your feet firmly on the ground, hip-width apart, and your back as straight as possible
- Hold onto the edges of your seat (next to your thighs)
- Put one leg out straight in front of you, so that the heel is resting on the ground, toes pointing up
- Keeping your back as straight as possible, use your hands to slowly bend over until you feel a slight stretch in the hamstring of the leg that’s outstretched
- Hold the stretch for approximately twenty seconds
- Repeat three times on each side
You can also do this exercise standing up.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your back straight
- Place your right foot a little bit in front of you (about 30 centimeters), resting on its heel with the toes pointing up, while you bend your left leg a tad
- Lean forward with your torso, keeping it straight, until you feel a slight at the back of your right thigh
- Hold the stretch for about twenty seconds and repeat three times on each side
- As you perform this exercise, you may want to keep your hands behind your back
If you are already quite flexible and have good core strength, you can also try the following:
- Stand in front of a stable table, or behind a robust chair, with your feet hip-width apart and your back straight
- Place your hands on the backrest of the chair, or the table, getting a firm hold, leaning against it
- Keeping your back and arms straight, bend forward until you feel a stretch at the back of your legs
- If you stand too close to the table, you may want to inch your feet backward until you feel the stretch
- Hold the stretch for about twenty seconds and repeat three times
This last exercise can also help stretch your lower back. Note that you don’t want to try it unless you have good core strength though.
6. Pigeon Pose Stretch
There are many variants of pigeon pose (a yoga pose), but the easiest one is the one where you lie on your back (reclining pigeon pose) on a flat, but robust surface. Preferably something firmer than your bed, such as a yoga mat on the floor.
- Lie down on your back
- Bend and raise your right leg, grabbing hold of your knee
- Raise your left leg, keeping it bent, and place the outside of your right ankle so it rests against the knee (and your inner right ankle is facing you)
- Push your left knee toward you, so that you feel a stretch going from your right buttock, into your thigh (it’s supposed to stretch your piriformis muscle)
- Hold the stretch for at least twenty seconds, then switch around and stretch your left leg
You can repeat this exercise a couple of times. As with the other exercises, slowly build up the number of times you do it and the stretch itself. Always start gently!
7. Calf Stretch
As sciatica can affect your entire leg, you want to stretch your calves as well as your hamstrings.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart facing a wall
- Put your hands at shoulder height on the wall, keeping them shoulder-width apart
- Lean into your arms as you put your right foot forward, bending the right leg (as in a lunge), while keeping the back leg (your left leg) straight
- Continue to bend your right leg until you feel a stretch in the calf of your left leg
- Hold the stretch for twenty seconds
- Switch legs and repeat about three times on each side
What Else Can You Do To Relieve Pain?
It’s recommended you try aerobic exercise (cardio), strength training, and flexibility training to further help relieve sciatica. Exercises that support your core (stomach, pelvis, lower back, sides) will help remove pressure from your spine, which may also help relieve your pain.
If you carry excess weight, losing a few kilos will also help remove strain from your spine.
If you need to sit for long periods, such as when working by a desk, take frequent breaks where you move about or even try getting a desk where you can stand for parts of the day. Again, this will help remove pressure
In short, you want to:
- exercise (cardio, strength, and flexibility)
- build up the strength of your core muscles
- manage your weight
- avoid sitting for long periods of time, or take frequent breaks if you do need to sit
Seeing your chiropractor may also help as they may be able to create mobility and help unpinch your sciatic nerve.
Tip: If you hate stretching by yourself or find it hard to understand the different stretches, try joining a yoga class for seniors, or seeing a physiotherapist.
Likewise, if exercising on your own doesn’t motivate you, join different classes, or create an exercise group for yourself, your friends and your extended network.