A very common problem is excruciating pain in the backside that shoots down the leg. Most of us have heard the term “Sciatica” to describe severe pain in the buttocks, back of leg, and feet. But what is it, and what can be done to help those who suffer from sciatic pain?
Sciatica happens when the sciatic nerve gets compressed. The sciatic nerve is a bundle of nerves that pass through the space between the Ischial Tuberosities (referred to in yoga as the “sits’ bones) and a knobby bump at the top of the Femur (thigh bone). It is roughly the thickness of an index finger, so that’s quite a large bundle of nerves! The piriformis muscle (see my newsletter for a more on this muscle) also passes through this area.
There are a few ways that the sciatic nerve might become compressed, thus leading to pain. First, the piriformis muscle may become tight and start to spasm. This is known as Piriformis Syndrome. Although there are a few causes for Piriformis Syndrome, it is quite common for it to evolve from long periods of sitting. Another cause of sciatic pain is a herniated (bulging) disc in the low back. Herniated discs often cause back pain, but if the sciatic nerve is being compressed, the pain can be felt in the buttocks, and also shoot down the legs, instead of in the low back where the disc is.
So, what can be done to help relieve sciatic pain? First, the extreme pain that comes with sciatic conditions, definitely merits a trip to your doctor to find out the cause of the pain. Treatment depends on whether the cause is Piriformis Syndrome, a herniated disc, or some other cause. Gentle stretching of the piriformis muscle is effective in helping with pain due to tightness and spasm of the piriformis muscle. Stretches should be held for 15 seconds to start, then progress to a 60 second hold. Examples of piriformis stretches are the “Figure 4” stretch or Pigeon Pose. Additionally, twisting postures may help with Piriformis Syndrome by realigning any imbalances in the hips. Examples are Prvta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose) and Ardha Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist).
For a herniation, it’s helpful to practice gentle back bends. This can assist in easing the disc matter back into the disc, thus relieving pressure on the nerves. Examples include Salabasana (Locust Pose) and Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1 Pose). If you’re unsure of the cause of your sciatic pain, you should practice extreme caution with twists, as they can exacerbate a herniation.
For more information on spinal health through yoga and physical therapy, check out my newsletter, join me for a class, or contact me for a private online Functional Yoga session.