As many as 40% of adults will suffer from sciatica at some point in their lives. If you fall into this demographic, your doctor might recommend physical therapy (among other treatments) as a way to manage your sciatica. What he/she likely didn’t mention is that you can use a foam roller as part of your physical therapy regimen for treating your sciatica symptoms. We’ll first go over the basics of sciatica, and then talk about how to use your foam roller for sciatica symptoms.
What Is Sciatica?
Sciatica is an irritation of the sciatic nerve, and can affect as many as 40% of adults at some point in their life. Sciatica is often described as a painful feeling that “shoots” from the back of the buttocks and thigh, and can extend down to the knee or even the foot. The actual sensation varies quite a bit- for some it’s a dull ache, others have a sharp burning sensation. Sciatica is often irritated by prolonged sitting or standing, as well as muscle contractions due to coughing, sneezing, lifting, or twisting.
The important thing to understand is that sciatica is itself a symptom, caused by compression of the sciatic nerve. This can be due to a herniated disc, an inflamed piriformis muscle, a bone spur, or multiple other causes. In order to eliminate sciatica, one must find the root cause and work to fix that. If your sciatica has persisted for more than a week, you should see a doctor. Your doctor will hopefully be able to identify the root cause, and develop a personalized recovery plan.
Since there’s no uniform cause of sciatica, we can’t recommend a single workout routine to help with it. Instead, we’ll highlight some different foam rolling exercises that can help with sciatica, and allow you to choose which ones to use based upon your particular circumstances.
How To Use a Foam Roller For Sciatica
The first thing we want to highlight is that if you have a mechanical injury to your back or spine, such as a herniated disc, you should not foam roll your lower back. This could potentially exacerbate your injury, and we certainly don’t want that to happen. Please read our article about foam rolling the lower back for more information.
Foam Rolling The Piriformis
Using your foam roller for sciatica will involve a few different exercises, the first of which is to foam roll the piriformis. This is a small muscle in the hip, close to the glutes, and lies directly on top of the sciatic nerve, which also extends through the muscle on its way down to leg. Therefore, an inflammation of the piriformis muscle can cause compression on the sciatic nerve and result in sciatica symptoms, a condition known as Piriformis Syndrome (Knudsen, 2016). This exercise will not only target the piriformis, but also the gluteus medius, gluteus maximus, and gluteus minimus as well…all of which can help contribute to decreased sciatic pain.
To perform this exercise, sit on top of your foam roller with both legs bent to 90 degrees and both feet flat on the ground. Bend your left left on top of the right, so that your left ankle is on top of your right knee. Now lean ever so slightly onto your left hip. Your right hand should be holding the left ankle in place, while the left hand is on the ground behind you for stabilization. Now start to slowly roll back and forth. After doing this side for 30-45 seconds, switch to the other side and repeat. Here’s an excellent video demonstrating the proper form:
Tip: When you do this exercise for the first time, you might want to use a softer foam roller, like the AmazonBasics 18-inch foam roller, to gauge your tolerance. I promise, after a few days it won’t hurt as much. You can then move up to firmer foam rollers, such as the very popular Trigger Point GRID 13-inch roller (which comes with free online instructional videos), if you find the softer ones are losing effectiveness. Our foam roller comparison page has some great information for purchasing your first foam roller.
Perform this exercise twice daily. You can do it morning and evening, or (better yet) once in the morning and then once again right before working out. Make it a routine, every day, so that you’re more likely to continue doing it. After a week or two your symptoms should be noticeably better.
Foam Rolling The Hamstring
Another exercise to consider when using a foam roller for sciatica treatment is to foam roll the hamstrings. Tight hamstrings often cause pressure in the lower back, as well as lower back pain. Additionally, pressure on the sciatic nerve can cause leg tightness. So overall, it’s a pretty good idea to roll the hamstrings during your exercise routine. We’ve created an entire page dedicated to foam rolling the hamstrings, but for convenience, here’s a video demonstrating the proper form:
Along with foam rolling the piriformis, we recommend that you foam roll the hamstrings twice daily. Even after you’ve effectively treated your sciatica, it’s still a good idea to continue your foam rolling regimen: you’ll increase your flexibility, increase bloodflow, decrease the risk of future injury, and even reduce the appearance of cellulite.
Additional Stretches To Treat Sciatica
Using a foam roller for sciatica treatment is a great start, but there are a few additional stretches we recommend adding to your workout. These stretches work in tandem with foam rolling, greatly increasing your overall flexibility and reducing inflammation and injury.
Stretch the Hamstrings. To do this stretch, you’ll need a chair, box, ottoman, or any other object that’s a foot or so tall. Place the object about 18 inches in front of you, and stretch one foot forward onto the object, keeping the knee straight. Then, keeping the back and opposite leg straight, lean gradually forward at the waist towards the outstretched leg. Lean until you start to feel pressure on the hamstring, but don’t go too far. Hold for 20 seconds, then switch sides.
Stretch the Lower Back. For this stretch, lie on your back with both legs forward. Slowly bend one leg, bringing the knee towards your chest. Wrap your arms around the leg to pull it tight to the chest, and hold for 5 seconds. Switch legs, and then perform 10 repetitions each.
Regardless of the root cause of your sciatica, using a foam roller for sciatica can help to drastically reduce your symptoms. Whether you choose to add one or both of the above exercises into your daily workout, we hope that the information presented was useful and that you find yourself quickly on the road to recovery.
Knudsen, J.S., Mei-Dan, O., & Brick, M.J. (2016). Piriformis Syndrome and Endoscopic Sciatic Neurolysis. Sports Medicine and Arthroscopy Review, 24(1), 1-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26752779
Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sciatica/basics/definition/con-20026478