What is sciatica?

Sciatica, also known as lumbosacral radicular syndrome, is caused by irritation of your sciatic nerve which starts in the lumbar or lower spine and ends in the thigh. With sciatica you may have pain in your buttocks and hip that travels to your thigh.
It can be a deep, dull pain or a shooting, sharp pain. Sciatic pain can range from mild to severe. It often goes away with treatment.

Causes of sciatica during pregnancy

Sciatic pain is typically caused by lumbar spine problems, such as a bulging or herniated disc. It can also be caused by bone changes, such as spinal narrowing or stenosis, osteoarthritis or degenerative disc disease, or another condition affecting the spine called spondylolisthesis. These situations can put pressure on the sciatic nerve, causing symptoms.

Sciatica due to a herniated disc during pregnancy isn’t common. But, sciatic-like symptoms are common with low back pain in pregnancy. In fact, between 50 and 80 percent of women have back pain during their pregnancies.

Sciatic symptoms can also be caused by muscle tension and unstable joints. Pelvic bone pain, sacroiliac (SI) joint problems, and a condition called piriformis syndrome, which is a problem with one of the muscles in the buttocks, are common causes of sciatic pain during pregnancy. This is due to an increase in pregnancy hormones like relaxin, which can cause your ligaments, the structures that attach bones to joints, to loosen and stretch, especially in your pelvic area.

Your baby’s weight can also add to SI joint trouble or piriformis syndrome because it puts extra pressure on your pelvis and hip joints. Occasionally the position of your baby can add pressure to your sciatic nerve.

Symptoms of sciatic pain during pregnancy

Symptoms of sciatic pain include:

  • occasional or constant pain in one side of your buttocks or leg
  • pain along the sciatic nerve path, from the buttocks down the back of your thigh and to the foot
  • sharp, shooting, or burning pain
  • numbness, pins and needles, or weakness in the affected leg or foot
  • difficulty walking, standing, or sitting

Always call your doctor if you are concerned about pain.

Ways to relieve sciatica pain

Treatments for sciatic pain during pregnancy include massage, chiropractic care, and physical therapy. Self-treatment of sciatic pain during pregnancy includes exercises to help stretch the muscles of the leg, buttocks, and hip to decrease the pressure on the sciatic nerve. Some people also find nonweight-bearing exercises, such as swimming, to be helpful. This is because the water helps to support the weight of your baby.

Try these five stretches to help ease sciatic pain and discomfort during your pregnancy.

1. Seated piriformis stretch

The piriformis muscle is deep in the buttocks. When tight, it can irritate the sciatic nerve. This stretch will help relieve tightness in the muscle. This can help decrease sciatic pain.

Equipment needed: none

Target muscle: piriformis

  1. Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the ground.
  2. If your left side is affected, put your left ankle on your right knee.
  3. Keeping a straight back, lean forward until you feel a stretch through your buttocks.
  4. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat throughout the day.

2. Table stretch

This feels great during pregnancy. It helps stretch the muscles of the back, buttocks, and the back of the legs.

Equipment needed: table

Target muscles: low back, spinal stabilizers, hamstrings

  1. Stand facing a table with your feet slightly wider than your hips.
  2. Lean forward with your hands on the table. Keep your arms straight and your back flat.
  3. Pull your hips away from the table until you feel a nice stretch in the lower back and back of the legs.
  4. You can also move your hips side to side to increase the stretch in the lower back and hips.
  5. Hold this position for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Repeat twice a day.

3. Pigeon Pose

This popular yoga pose helps relieve sciatic-like pain during pregnancy. With a few small changes, it can be practiced comfortably while pregnant.

Equipment needed: rolled-up towel or yoga block

Target muscles: hip rotators and flexors

  1. Get on your hands and knees on the floor.
  2. Slide your right knee forward so it’s between your hands.
  3. Slide your left leg back, keeping your foot on the floor.
  4. Place the rolled towel or a yoga block under your right hip. This will make the stretch easier and allow room for your belly.
  5. Lean forward over your right leg. Slowly lower yourself toward the ground, putting a pillow under your head and arms for support.
  6. Hold for 1 minute. Repeat on other side. Repeat a few times throughout the day.

4. Hip flexor stretch

The hip flexors are the muscles along the front of the hip that help move the leg forward during movements like walking. Many women have tight hip flexors during pregnancy. This can affect pelvic alignment and posture, causing pain.

Equipment needed: none

Target muscles: hip flexors

  1. Kneel on the floor on your hands and knees.
  2. Step one foot in front of you so that your hip and knee are at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Shift your weight forward until you feel a stretch in the front of your back hip and leg.
  4. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on other side.

5. Glute and hamstring foam rolling

A foam roller is an inexpensive piece of equipment you can use to help massage your muscles. Foam rolling is a great way to soothe and relax tight muscles that may be contributing to increased pain. The roller acts like a mini massage for tight muscles and connective tissue.

Equipment needed: foam roller

Target muscles: hamstrings, calf muscles, glutes, piriformis

  1. Place a foam roller on the ground.
  2. Sit on the foam roller, supporting yourself with your hands behind you.
  3. Cross one foot over the other knee into a “figure 4” position.
  4. Slowly move your body back and forth over the foam roller until you find a tender spot.
  5. Continue this movement over the sore area for 30 to 60 seconds.
  6. Slowly move over the foam roller until you find another tender area. As in step 5, continue over the area for 30 to 60 seconds.
  7. Repeat on other side.

Next steps

During pregnancy, sciatic pain can be painful and frustrating. Stretching can improve sciatic pain by decreasing muscle tension and increasing movement in the hips, lower back, and legs. Sciatic pain may become worse if you sit or stand for long periods of time. So be sure to switch your positions throughout the day.

Listen to your body and stop activities that cause sciatic pain to get worse. Always talk with your doctor before you start exercising. If you have any symptoms like dizziness, headaches, or bleeding, stop exercising and get medical help.