Sciatica and Yoga

Sciatica is a name for a wide range of symptoms and has a variety of causes – it is often difficult for sufferers to find relief from symptoms that range from tingling and numbness to sharp pain in the hips, legs and feet. Although yoga can be helpful for relieving sciatic symptoms, it is also possible to develop sciatica from practicing yoga.

Any kind of nerve-related symptoms should be taken very seriously and assessed by a trained therapist because nerve damage causes degeneration of muscles and Sciatica can be a symptom of serious problems in the spine.

The Sciatic nerve is formed from roots rising from the spinal cord between the lower Lumbar vertebrae and the sacrum that join together to form a large nerve that travels down the back of the hip and leg and branches to the toes. Sciatica symptoms are caused by compression of the nerve or its roots. The most common sources of irritation are the vertebrae or the Piriformis muscle, because in 15% of people, the Sciatic nerve travels through the fibres of the Piriformis muscle and tension in the muscle compresses the nerve. Sacroiliac joint problems also produce Sciatica symptoms because hip misalignment creates tension in the lower back muscles that attach to the lumbar vertebrae, irritating the nerve roots.

Yoga can cause Sciatica symptoms in these ways:

  1. Direct compression of nerve roots when backbending is taken to extremes, especially if the Lumbar spine is hyperextended
  2. Holding asanas like Hanumanasana and Kurmasana for long periods can stretch and damage the Sciatic nerve
  3. Sciatica often develops after Hamstring injuries
  4. Many yogis develop weak gluteal muscles and unstable, misaligned hips: commonly from practicing too many leg-strengthening postures and over-stretching the hip muscles. Muscle imbalance within the shoulder girdle also affects hip alignment and can cause sciatica.
  5. Body asymmetry and previous injury causes misalignment of the hips, shoulders and Sacroiliac joint and Sciatica. Problematic body alignment is often reinforced by asymmetrical asanas: all kinds of standing poses that are done on the left and right sides.

Many people have marked differences between the left and right sides of their bodies and are often unaware of these differences. It is up to the class teacher to act as an outside observer and point out differences – helping students to correct imbalance – for yoga to have any therapeutic value. Correcting painful body alignment requires specific therapy and is beyond the scope of a general yoga class or set yoga sequence.

Sciatica that is related to body asymmetry improves when sufferers avoid asymmetrical standing poses – or practise more on their weaker side, working with maximum awareness – and strengthen the core muscles with asanas that require stabilisation, such as Vasistasana, Purvottanasana, Salabhasana and Bakasana, rather than abdominal exercise involving  flexion and extension of the torso and legs.

Strong, flexible hips and shoulders prevent hyper extension of the lumbar spine in asanas like Urdhva Dhanurasana.  Yogis often don’t understand the difference between bending from the Thoracic spine and bending the Lumbar spine in asanas like Salabhasana, Bujangasana, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana and standing back bends. Teachers are greatly responsible for ensuring that students learn safe back bending habits.

Stretching the Piriformis muscle is commonly prescribed as treatment for sciatica but this is often unhelpful for long-term yoga practitioners because the hips are stretched so much anyway: tension in the Piriformis is then a sign of muscle imbalance or body alignment problems. Sciatic symptoms are often worse after practicing Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, Gomukhasana, Garudhasana and Parvritta- versions of Trikonasana, Ardha Chandrasana or Parsvakonasana – especially bound Parsvakonasana. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, Sciatica caused by yoga improves by avoiding hip-openers and strengthening the hips and core.

If Sciatica develops after long-term yoga practice, it can be helpful to get a physical assessment to check for pelvic crossed syndrome (weak butt and lower abdominal muscles) and work on correcting muscle imbalances and pelvic stabilisation. Correct use of Bandhas stabilises the lower back and pelvis. The link below is to exercises that help to teach pelvic stabilisation. The articles are available for download in Adobe pdf format although it helps to be taught them properly by someone trained.

http://dianelee.ca/education/article_deep_core.php

Reading Sources:
De Franca, 1996, Pelvic Locomotor Dysfunction
Kendall, McCreary, Provance, 1993, Muscles, Testing and Function
Lee, 1999, The Pelvic Girdle

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3 thoughts on “Sciatica and Yoga

  1. I found this article extremely helpful. I’ve been practicing yoga for 7 years, I am 25 years old and the last 2 classes I’ve taken have resulted in sciatic pain. I practice up to 6 days a week and I’m have taught yoga for 4 years. I’m currently looking into another teacher training program North of San Francisco our in Austin, Texas. Any further beneficial information or links you can muster up would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. Rachel

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    • Hi Rachel
      The most important thing about sciatic pain is that you must find out what is causing it: a physical assessment by a medical professional and suitable treatment is essential because sciatic pain tends to become chronic if untreated and can cause muscle atrophy in your legs.

      Sciatica can be very difficult and frustrating to unravel – it may be caused by one particular event but is often an accumulation of causes and conditions. Because humans are right or left-handed, body asymmetry is natural and this in itself is a cause of sciatica especially in athletes; we always do things better on one side and favour our stronger side. This asymmetry can develop to a point where body alignment causes sciatica. Skeletal injuries can also permanently alter body alignment in ways that irritate the sciatic nerve.

      A long-term, frequent yoga practitioner like yourself should bear in mind that more stretching is unlikely to help and that a physical assessment by a professional and suitable core exercise is the first step. Although the spine or spinal discs are sometimes the source of pain, the sacroiliac joint and hip alignment is frequently the real reason why you are getting the spinal misalignment in the first place. So first check if you have a spinal problem and if it’s not your spine, look at your hips: muscle function and alignment. Whether its the spine or hips, retraining the deep core stabilisers is the best way to manage your symptoms, no matter whether they are caused by damage to skeletal structures, body alignment or muscle imbalance.

      Please bear in mind that doing ab-strengthening exercises is not the same thing as training deep core stabilisers: exercise taught by a rehab specialist with a strong emphasis on correct form will be most effective. A better awareness of the use of these muscles can then be carried over into your yoga practice. It’s a good idea to try and figure out if any particular yoga poses or sequences make your symptoms worse and either skip or modify them. Sometimes you may simply have to acknowledge that certain styles or yoga classes are not suitable for you and self-practice is all you can do.

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  2. Just found your blog while searching ‘can yoga cause sciatica’… SO refreshing to have found your blog. Nice to see someone who has taken the blinders off and got real about how one form of movement, over time, can cause imbalances and lead to the very things it is ‘suppose’ to help with. Wrist, elbows, shoulders and now nerve pain after 20 years on the mat. Thank you, thank you for being an awesome voice on this issue :-)

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