Anyone who's had sciatica -- an inflammation of the large sciatic nerve that runs down the leg -- knows how painful it can be. Yoga can help sciatic pain, but it can also make it worse, depending upon what's causing the pain. Understanding the cause of your sciatic pain will help you tailor a yoga practice that's right for you.
Sciatic Pain Causes
The sciatic nerve runs from your lumbar spine down the back of your leg, with branches that travel to your toes. Pinching of the sciatic nerve anywhere along its length can cause irritation, inflammation and pain. The pain can range from mild to excruciating, and may include sensations of burning, electric shock, numbness, tingling and weakness. The pain typically only runs down the back of one leg. The two most common causes of sciatic pain are a herniated disk in your lower back and piriformis syndrome.
If the fluid-filled center of a disk in your lumbar spine gets pushed backward, it can pinch one of the spinal nerve roots that make up the sciatic nerve. Over-rounding the lower back is a common culprit. To keep your back healthy in forward-bending poses, focus on folding from your hip joints. If your back slumps in seated poses, place a folded blanket under your hips to help you stay upright. Because forward bending and twisting poses can flare up sciatica, you may need to avoid them if you have sciatic pain. Mild backbends like Cobra and Locust pose may help with the pain.
The sciatic nerve runs directly under the piriformis, a deep muscle in the buttocks that turns your thigh out. If your piriformis is overly tight and contracted, it can pinch the nerve -- another common cause of sciatic pain. Stretching the piriformis can help. Pigeon pose and Cow-Face pose are good piriformis stretches. Twisting poses like Revolved Triangle pose, Revolved Half Moon pose and Half Lord of the Fishes pose also help release the piriformis.
Considerations and Cautions
There are many more possible causes of sciatic pain, each requiring a different approach. What may be helpful for one condition could be harmful for another, so it's important to know what's causing your pain. If you have sciatic pain, consult your doctor before beginning a yoga routine. Work with a qualified yoga teacher who can help you modify your practice. Yoga styles that focus on alignment and therapeutic exercises are probably a better choice than vigorous, fast-moving styles.
- Relief Is in the Stretch: End Back Pain Through Yoga; Loren Fishman and Carol Ardman
- Yoga Journal: Coping with Sciatica
- Yoga Journal: Protect the Disks in Forward Bends and Twists
Joe Miller started writing professionally in 1991. He specializes in writing about health and fitness and has written for "Fit Yoga" magazine and the New York Times City Room blog. He holds a master's degree in applied physiology from Columbia University, Teacher's College.