7 Sciatica Stretches That Can Help Relieve Nerve Pain, According to a Physical Therapist

From ‘neural flossing’ to a classic figure four

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You know the feeling: sharp, shooting pain radiating down the back of your leg. It hurts to sit, it hurts to walk and you’ve just about given up on finding a way to ease the sensation. Sciatica, a condition characterized by pain running along the sciatic nerve (which originates at the base of the spine and runs along the back of each leg), is no joke. Though it can vary in intensity—from a mild ache to an electric shock—sciatica can be debilitating, limiting your mobility and decreasing your quality of life. If you’re in need of immediate relief, there are a number of nerve mobilizing stretches you can do at home to help manage the pain, from “neural flossing” to a classic figure four. Read on for seven gentle sciatica stretches a physical therapist swears by.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Christynne Helfrich, PT, DPT, OCS is a physical therapist at Hinge Health, a Board Certified Orthopedic Specialist and a member of the American Physical Therapy Association. As a practicing clinician since 2010, Helfrich has worked in a variety of outpatient settings, including in-home physical therapy services and in sports medicine with collegiate football teams. In her current role, her mission is to help people overcome pain and transform their lives. Hinge Health is a digital physical therapy resource that combines clinical care with advanced technology. It offers personalized exercise therapy you can do on your own time in your own home, no commutes or waiting rooms required.

What Causes Sciatica Pain?

The sciatic nerve branches from your lower back and extends through your hips and butt and down the back of each leg. Sciatica pain­­—as the name suggests—is caused by compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve. According to Helfrich, some of the most common causes of sciatica are a herniated disc (when the center of the spinal discs that sit between our vertebrae protrudes out), spinal bone spurs, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal), spondylolisthesis (displacement of a vertebra) and degenerative disc disease that can occur as we age. Injury, muscle inflammation and muscle tightness are also common causes of sciatica.

Though the treatment of sciatica will vary depending on the cause and severity, anti-inflammatory medications, steroid injections and physical therapy (like the stretches included here) are all viable options for pain management and prevention, according to the Mayo Clinic.

How Often Should I Do Sciatica Stretches?

“Every person will have a unique pain experience, but generally it’s great to do these stretches daily to help alleviate symptoms,” Helfrich says. In addition to stretching, staying active and moving around throughout the day can also help relieve and prevent sciatica pain. “Avoid any prolonged periods of inactivity, but also be mindful not to overexert yourself,” she says. “Stress management can also be helpful in reducing tension and relaxing the muscles.” (Think: meditation, breath work, yoga and journaling.) For general wellbeing, she suggests eating a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet, as well as maintaining a healthy weight to reduce the strain on your back.

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1. Figure Four Stretch

One of the best stretches you can do for sciatica pain; this move helps lengthen and release the piriformis muscle, which extends through your lower spine and pelvis, passing directly over the sciatic nerve. Prolonged tightness in this muscle can lead to compression of the sciatic nerve.

Step 1: Lie down on your back with both legs extended out. Cross your left ankle over your right quad and bend your right knee until your calf is parallel to the ground.

Step 2: Interlace your fingers behind your right thigh and gently pull in toward your chest. You should feel a stretch along your left glute and hip. Hold for 30 seconds before returning to the starting position. Switch sides and repeat.

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2. Cat Cow

This classic yoga move stretches the entire spine—lumbar (low back), thoracic (mid back) and cervical (neck)—through controlled spinal extension and flexion.

Step 1: Begin in a neutral position on all fours with your wrists below your shoulders and knees below your hips. Take a deep inhale and push your palms into the ground while dropping your belly towards the floor (cow pose). Broaden your shoulders and lengthen through your collarbone while you arch your lower back, tilting your head slightly up and shifting your gaze towards the ceiling.

Step 2: As you exhale, tuck your tailbone while rounding through your back, pulling your belly button in towards your spine (cat pose). Press the tops of your feet into the ground while tilting your head down and shifting your gaze between your legs. Flow through both movements, completing 10 to 20 reps total.

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3. Standing Back Extension

Extensions through your lower back can help relieve the pressure on the sciatic nerve by mobilizing the lumbar spine as well as the erector spinae muscles that surround it. If you spend most of the day sitting at a desk, this move is for you.

Step 1: Begin standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Place your hands on your lower back with your elbows out wide and thumbs facing down, opening through your chest.

Step 2: Gently lean back, shifting your hips forward while your spine extends back. Hold for two breaths, return to the starting position and repeat completing 10 reps total.

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4. Seated Nerve Glide

This stretch is designed to help mobilize the nerve by “pulling” it in two opposing directions. Also known as nerve flossing, neural gliding can help alleviate pain and increase range of motion.

Step 1: Begin sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the ground. Extend one leg out in front of you until your knee is straight and your foot is perpendicular to your body.

Step 2: Flex your extended foot, pulling your toes back toward your body while simultaneously tilting your head back. You’ll feel a stretch along the back of your legs (from your calves to your hamstrings).

Step 3: Hold here for 10 seconds, then point your toes to release the stretch while tilting your head forward. Flow through these movements, completing 10 reps total, then switch legs and repeat.

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5. Calf Stretch

Don’t ignore your calves! The sciatic nerve travels down the back of each leg, so tight calves can contribute to pain and inflammation.

Step 1: Begin standing with your feet hip-width apart. Step one foot as far back as you can while maintaining contact between your heel and the ground.

Step 2: Bend your front knee slightly and lean forward while keeping your back leg straight and heel firmly pressed into the ground. You should feel a stretch up through the calf of your back leg. Hold for 30 seconds, switch to the opposite leg and repeat. If additional support is needed, place both hands on a wall at chest height.

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6. Lying Hamstring Stretch

To increase the intensity of this hamstring stretch, grab a band or towel and wrap it around the ball of your foot, pulling your extended leg in toward your chest.

Step 1: Begin lying on your back with one knee bent and the other leg out straight. Slowly lift your straight leg up towards the ceiling until you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh. Your hands can gently pull your lifted leg back toward your chest, holding onto either your calf or thigh depending on your mobility.

Step 2: Hold for 30 seconds before lowering your leg back down to the starting position. Switch legs and repeat, completing 3 reps on each side.

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7. Glute Bridge

Stretching meets strengthening in this functional move that engages your hamstrings and glutes while lengthening out your quads and hip flexors.

Step 1: Begin lying on your back with your arms out to your sides, palms facing down. Bend your knees until your feet are flat on the floor, about hip-width apart.

Step 2: Pressing your feet into the floor, squeeze your glutes and hamstrings to lift your hips up off the ground. Hold here for 5 seconds without arching your lower back (there should be a straight diagonal line from your knees to your shoulder blades).

Step 3: Lower back down to the ground to return to the starting position and repeat, completing 10 reps total.

When Should I See a Doctor for Sciatica Pain?

If your symptoms don’t subside over a few weeks or get worse after doing these stretches, it might be time to reach out to a medical professional for further evaluation. Helfrich also suggests seeing a doctor if you notice “decreased sensation or loss of motor control” (difficulty lifting your foot or your legs spontaneously give out), as this can indicate a more serious nerve problem. “Similarly, if you notice difficulty controlling your bladder or bowel movements, this would also be an indication to seek medical attention.”

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