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Sciatica: Top 5 Physical Therapy Exercises for Pain Relief


Posted by Dr. Scott Wilson | 15-Nov-2023

Living with Sciatica can be a physical, mental and emotional challenge each and every day. It’s a condition that’s characterized by ongoing pain, tingling, and numbness in the leg that often originates from the lower back. Fortunately, physical therapy has been proven to be an effective treatment option for those suffering with sciatica. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at Sciatica, including the cause, symptoms and common risk factors. Then, we’ll review 5 top physical therapy exercises to help alleviate your sciatic pain, improve your ability to function and restore your quality of life. If you’ve been struggling with Sciatica, here’s what you need to know.

Understanding Sciatica

Understanding your condition is the first step toward getting back to pain free living. Sciatica is caused by the compression or irritation of your sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body. It originates from your lower spine and travels down the back of your leg and controls the muscles of your lower leg and provides sensation to your thigh, lower leg, and foot.  It also includes two branches, the tibial nerve, which courses down the back of the leg to the sole of the foot, and the common peroneal nerve, which courses down the front of the leg and foot. When any of these are compressed or irritated, the result is pain, tingling, and numbness that radiates along the sciatic nerve pathway.

Symptoms of Sciatica and Severe Sciatica

The symptoms of sciatica can vary in severity, from a mild tingling or a dull ache, to a sharp, shooting, debilitating pain that worsens with certain activities, such as sitting, standing for long periods, or walking long distances. In severe cases, symptoms may include severe pain, leg weakness, or bladder/bowel changes, which require immediate medical attention. More serious complications, such as a slipped disk or spinal stenosis, can lead to permanent numbness or weakness of one part of the leg.

Common Sciatica Risk Factors

There are a number of common risk factors for sciatica, including herniated discs, spinal stenosis, muscle spasm, spinal tumors, bone spurs, and trauma to the lower back. Other factors include obesity and occupations that require twisting your back, bending, carrying heavy loads, or sitting for long periods, especially without proper back support.

How Does Physical Therapy Help with Sciatica?

Physical therapy plays a crucial role in the treatment of sciatica and offers a range of benefits. Unlike pain medications, which just mask pain temporarily, physical therapy provides a long-term solution addresses the root cause of sciatica. Through a combination of exercises, stretches, and manual therapy techniques, physical therapy can help to reduce sciatic pain, muscle spasms and inflammation, improve flexibility, strength and posture, and allow for a more active lifestyle.

Getting Started with Physical Therapy

Early intervention with physical therapy can help prevent your condition from worsening or becoming chronic. Starting with a proper examination and diagnosis, working with a physiotherapist or chiropractor can lead to a faster recovery, reduced pain, and improved overall function. Of course, the specific timing of a physical therapy intervention may vary depending on the underlying cause of your sciatica and the severity of your symptoms. During the initial phase of treatment, it’s important to avoid heavy lifting or twisting of your back for the first 6 weeks after the pain begins. This simple precaution can help with the healing process and prevent further strain on the affected area.

Top Physical Therapy Stretches and Exercises for Sciatica

Physical therapy stretches and exercises are a key component in a treatment plan for sciatica. Here are five top physical therapy stretches and exercises that can help alleviate your sciatic pain and improve your condition:

Piriformis Stretch:

  • This stretch targets the piriformis muscle, relieving sciatic nerve pain.
  • Sit on the edge of a chair, cross your affected leg over the opposite knee with the foot of the affected leg resting on the thigh of the opposite leg.
  • Gently lean forward, feeling a stretch in your buttocks.
  • Hold the position for a few seconds, then release.
  • Repeat the stretch with the other leg, alternating between the two legs.

Pelvic Tilt:

  • This exercise strengthens the muscles of your lower back, relieving sciatica pain.
  • Lie on your back with your knees bent, and your feet flat on the floor.
  • Press your lower back into the ground, lifting your pelvis slightly off the floor.
  • Hold the position for a couple of seconds, then lower your back down.
  • Repeat the movement, lifting and lowering your pelvis, focusing on the muscles of your lower back.

Cat-Cow Stretch:

  • This stretch helps improve your spinal flexibility, reducing sciatica symptoms.
  • Start on your hands and knees, with your back straight.
  • Round your back, tucking your chin towards your chest, while engaging your abdomen muscles (cat pose).
  • Arch your back, lifting your chest towards the ceiling, while relaxing your abdomen (cow pose).
  • Repeat the movement, flowing smoothly between the two poses, focusing on the flexibility of your spine.

Knee to Chest Stretch:

  • This exercise helps alleviate sciatic pain and improve flexibility in your lower back.
  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  • Gently bring one knee towards your chest, using your hands to pull it closer, until you feel a stretch in your lower back.
  • Hold the stretch for a few seconds, then release.
  • Repeat the stretch with the other leg, alternating between the two legs.

Hamstring Stretch:

  • This exercise stretches the muscles in the back of your thigh, relieving sciatic pain.
  • Sit on the floor with your affected leg extended in front of you, and the other leg bent, foot flat on the floor.
  • Lean forward, reaching for your foot, while keeping your back straight.
  • Hold the stretch for a few seconds, then release.
  • Repeat the stretch with the other leg, alternating between the two legs.

Key Considerations for Managing Sciatica

While performing stretches and exercises are important for managing your condition, here are some other considerations:

Seeking Professional Help

Seeking the expertise and assistance of an experienced healthcare provider, such as a physiotherapist or chiropractor, can have a significant impact on managing your symptoms and addressing your condition. They can perform a physical exam, review your medical history, and create a personalized treatment plan based on the particulars of your condition. Professionals can provide a more targeted approach, ensuring the use of specific physical therapy techniques and exercises. They can also monitor your progress, and make adjustments to your treatment plan as needed. Seeking professional help also ensures the management of any underlying causes of your sciatica. This helps to avoid complications and long-term damage.

Lifestyle Modifications

Making certain lifestyle modifications, such as avoiding prolonged bed rest, can contribute to the management of sciatica symptoms. Maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the stress on the lower back, relieving pressure on the sciatic nerve. Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen and naproxen can help relieve pain, although they should be only a short-term solution, and should be used in conjunction with other treatment options. Practicing good posture, especially while sitting and lifting, can help prevent the worsening of sciatica symptoms. Avoiding prolonged periods of sitting or standing, and taking regular breaks to move, can help alleviate sciatic pain. Engaging in low-impact physical activities, such as walking or swimming, can help improve flexibility, strength, and overall spinal health. A health care provider can recommend activities to further support the management of sciatica symptoms. Practicing stress management techniques, such as meditation or deep breathing, can help reduce muscle tension and pain associated with sciatica.

Frequently Asked Questions About Physical Therapy Exercises for Sciatica:

Q1. How long does it typically take to see improvement from these exercises?

The amount of time it takes to see improvement from physical therapy exercises for sciatica varies from person to person. However, consistent and proper usage is key. For some individuals, improvement may be seen within a few days, while for others, it may take weeks or even months. It’s important to continue doing the exercises as prescribed by your physical therapist to see continued improvement.

Q2. Are there any precautions or considerations associated with these exercises?

Before starting any exercise program for sciatica or low back pain, it’s important to consult with your healthcare professional. They can provide specific guidance based on your condition and medical history. As with any exercise program, it’s important to start slowly and gradually increase the intensity and duration of the exercises, listening to your body and avoiding any exercises that cause pain or discomfort. Watch your posture and form during the exercises to avoid further injury. Reduce your activity for the first couple of days. Then, slowly start your usual activities. Self-treatment techniques such as stretching and activity can also be beneficial for managing low back pain. Learning how to stretch properly from an instructor with experience with low back pain can be a major help. They may also be able to help you work your way up to other general strengthening, core muscle strengthening, and aerobic exercises.

Q3. Are there any other treatments or therapies that can be combined with these exercises for maximum relief?

In addition to physical therapy exercises, there are other treatment options and therapies that can be combined for maximum relief of acute sciatica symptoms. These may include hot/cold therapy, massage, chiropractic adjustments, acupuncture, and yoga. They have all been found to be helpful in relieving acute sciatica symptoms. It’s important to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the best treatment plan for your individual needs.


While living with Sciatica can be a debilitating experience, the good news is that physical therapy exercises can have a significant impact on managing and alleviating symptoms. Incorporating these five stretches and exercises into your routine can help improve your flexibility, strengthen your affected muscles, and relieve the pressure on your sciatic nerve which leads to the tingling, numbness and pain. It’s important to remember that consistency is key when it comes to seeing improvement. While these exercises can provide relief, working with a healthcare professional, like a physiotherapist or a chiropractor, can make significant difference. Additionally, making lifestyle modifications such as maintaining good posture, avoiding prolonged sitting, and engaging in regular exercise can further support your recovery process.

If you’re struggling with sciatica, we can help. Contact us today and let us show you why, at Physiomed…Healthier Starts Here.

Dr. Scott Wilson

Dr. Scott Wilson is the Founder & Chairman of Physiomed; one of Canada’s largest franchised networks of inter-disciplinary healthcare clinics. A graduate of Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College, Dr. Wilson founded Physiomed in 1994 and has since grown Physiomed to over 30 clinics in Southern Ontario and British Columbia. With hundreds of practitioners from over a dozen disciplines, Dr. Wilson and Physiomed have helped over 100,000 Canadians with physiotherapy, chiropractic, massage therapy, orthotic therapy, compression therapy and clinical conditioning as part of a program of rehabilitation and health optimization. In addition to helping patients improve their physical and mental well-being, Dr. Wilson has also mentored hundreds of practitioners to provide better care while enjoying more fulfilling careers. He is also a keynote speaker on many health related topics including how physiotherapy, chiropractic and health & wellness treatment can help with stress, weight loss, and unlocking the true potential within to achieve lasting physical well-being.

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