If you enjoy the gym and have sciatica this gives you some ideas of gym machine exercises for sciatica. For some the idea of exercising with sciatica may seem like an absolute no no! It is counterintuitive but physical activity is the best medicine for most musculoskeletal ailments and sciatica is no different.
Your starting point is to take advice from a healthcare professional such as your doctor or a physiotherapist. They will let you know if there are any reasons you should not be exercising. Once you have the green light what are the things you can do to aid your recovery.
There are lots of exercises that can be done to help you recover from sciatica. Many of them focus on stretching and using your body weight. There is not that much said about the utility of machine exercises for sciatica. If you like to use the gym and gym machines then the good news is the gym can be a safe place to be physically active as the exercise machine technology available has features that can reduce the risk of aggravating sciatic pain symptoms if used correctly.
Before we go into what to use and what to avoid in the gym it is sensible to know what is causing your sciatic pain symptoms. Remember sciatica is a symptom not a condition. Your healthcare provider can provide you with an accurate diagnosis based on your medical history and examination.
For the majority of people, the sciatica symptoms will be caused by one of two things:
- Nerves that branch out from the spinal cord in the lower back that become compressed and irritate the nerves that form the sciatic nerve, sometimes referred to as nerve root irritation. This mechanism accounts for the vast majority (85%+) of sciatica symptoms people experience.
- Compression of the sciatic nerve as it runs through the gluteal (buttocks) region. The cause of the compression can be due to a number of structures in the buttock but the most common is thought to be the piriformis muscle and hence the condition is often referred to as piriformis syndrome.
Now we know the main causes of sciatica symptoms we can use this knowledge to help us work out what exercise machines may help or hinder recovery from sciatica.
Machine Exercises for Sciatica
#1. Stationary Bikes
Sometimes nerve root irritation is exacerbated when standing upright. Stationary bikes can be a useful way to get exercise that allows you to adjust the position of your lower back where you feel most comfortable.
- Upright exercise bikes – These are useful if your symptoms are aggravated when you are upright or lean back slightly. You can adjust seat height and handlebars so that you can create a slight forward lean if that position feels most comfortable.
- Recumbent exercise bikes – These are useful if your symptoms are aggravated when you are upright or lean forward slightly. They also have the added advantage of taking the most weight of your spine as you have a supportive back rest.
Both types of bike allow you to get good aerobic exercise and strengthen you the legs in a manner that helps stretch the sciatic nerve, which is beneficial to help recovery. Also being in a safe environment where you can focus on your exercise without fear of having to suddenly react to a situation on the road is useful. Sudden jolts can be very painful when you have sciatica.
Elliptical machines are great because they are low impact so if the jolt of stepping as you walk sends shooting pains through your sciatic nerve this might be the ideal machine for you. Also, a good choice if sitting on a bike is not a good option for your sciatic symptoms.
If you can manage walking, then this can be one of the best exercises for sciatica to help with recovery. We are born and designed to walk so this activity is a great signal to the brain that helps boost mood and aid recovery. Walking outside in a nice setting is always nice, but as you recover the safety of a smooth even surface with the ability to adjust incline and pace is the main benefit a treadmill can offer.
#4. Weight machines
The first three items are focused on movement and building aerobic capacity, but we must not forget to also build strength. Intrinsic strength is one of the best safeguards against developing sciatic pain symptoms and helping you to recover if you do. Weight machines have the advantage of introducing work in a controlled and safer manner than free weights. Start with light weights and steady slow movements. Take advice from a gym instructor of personal trainer for the best machines to help build strength and resilience against sciatica.
Think about recovery
The most important part of an exercise program is the recovery phase. This is where the aerobic and strength gains actually occur, and the healing takes place. The basics things required for good recovery is eating well, sleeping well, drinking plenty of water and ensuring you get enough rest between exercise sessions. Typically, 48 hours between sessions will allow the body to recover.
While you are in recovery mode is important to keep moving and to avoid aggravating your sciatica symptoms as much as possible. For example if sitting causes sciatic pain symptoms then consider a cushion that helps to relieve symptoms while sitting.
Things to avoid
- Over exertion – exercising too frequently without adequate recovery
- Moving weights that are too heavy
- Exercises for sciatica that call for vigorous repeated flexion in the lower back, e.g., a rowing machine