Can Pilates help sciatica?
Sciatica is the name given to any sort of pain that is caused by irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve. Can Pilates offer relief to sufferers?
What is sciatica?
Your sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in your body and runs from the base of your spine (pelvis) through your buttocks and all the way down both legs, ending in your feet. Sciatica is the general term for pain caused by compression or irritation of your sciatic nerve. This can range from feeling uncomfortable to being completely debilitating for the sufferer.
What causes it?
Your spine is made up of a series of vertebrae with disks in between. Most cases of sciatica are caused by a damaged (herniated or slipped) disk. This can change the shape of the disk, meaning it begins to press on the sciatic nerve. This compression sends pain through the nerve with the most painful areas usually being the buttock and thigh, although it can also be painful in the lower back and below the knee. Sciatica can also be caused by a spinal injury, a growth within the spine or narrowing of nerve passages in the spine, although these are less common.
If you have a client who suffers with sciatica, it is important to work within their limitations for that day. They may feel the pain some days is better than others. Most sciatica will pass within 6-8 weeks without medical treatment, although clients may be using painkillers and heat/ice packs which will ease the symptoms. Movement helps as it allows the disks to remain mobile, so gentle exercise and stretching is fantastic for sciatica sufferers.
We can’t guarantee you could completely prevent your clients from suffering with sciatica, but you can definitely decrease their chances of suffering with a few simple tips:
- Posture - this is their number one defence in the fight against back pain. If your clients spend most of their day out of alignment squashing disks at funny angles they can expect this to have a negative effect over time. If they can improve their overall posture (and awareness of posture) then they will undoubtedly place their disks in a better position for longer periods of the day and decreasing their chances of disks pressing on the sciatic nerve
- Applying ‘good posture’ to all their activities. Once your clients have learnt how their optimal posture feels, they should be reminded that it’s not just for their Pilates session, it’s for always - when standing, sitting, walking and lifting. This will reinforce good habits and help to prevent them from potential sciatic nerve pain
- Strengthening their abdominals, back and core. Pilates is key to this and if done correctly will absolutely lead to strength and endurance gains in these preferred areas. A strong back and core will go a long way towards sciatica prevention
- Exercise with a good mobility section and warm-up as well as an effective cool-down and stretch will keep clients supple and their spine safe. Exercise is known to reduce deterioration of vertebral disks, which means they are less likely to become herniated, therefore reducing the risk of sciatica
Clients suffering with sciatica may have been given daily stretch exercises by their physiotherapist. These take into account where the sciatic nerve is and how to stretch it and keep mobile. Stretches should be done gently once a day, and will include:
- Supine lying knee to chest
- Glute stretch
- Hamstring and calf stretch combined (toes towards nose rather than away)
Sciatica can be ongoing and painful. If you have the opportunity to explain to your clients how important posture is to prevent this, please educate them. This is how we make a difference.
You can gain more knowledge to help you deliver this confidently in our Pilates for Common Orthopaedic Conditions course.
Written by Heather Oakes