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Swimming and sciatica

Swimming and sciatica

Swimming and sciatica

Many people are unaware that sciatica is considered a symptom of a medical condition, and not a medical condition in itself. Sciatic pain is caused by the sciatic nerve experiencing compression as a result of an underlying disorder. Although sciatica is often associated with back pain, it can also affect other areas of the body. This is due to the sciatic nerve which runs through the spine, legs and feet. Because of this, swimming can be a very beneficial way to ease the pain of sciatica, loosen joints and increase overall flexibility. In extreme cases, sciatica can render individuals unable to move without experiencing severe pain. Pain can start in the back, buttocks, or in areas of the legs and feet. If you think you are suffering from pain that is related to sciatica, it is a good idea to visit your GP for a proper diagnosis.

How can swimming benefit individuals that suffer from sciatica?

For many that experience sciatica, exercise can be the last thing on their mind. Exercising when you are experiencing pain or discomfort can be off  putting, but exercise is very beneficial for those with sciatica. Exercise helps with flexibility and nerve pain and also releases endorphins in the body (the body’s natural painkillers). Swimming can be a great way to allow you to stay mobile and active when you are experiencing pain due to the weightlessness experienced when exercising in water. This also means that your joints, muscles and nerves will be under less pressure but still able to strengthen.

Advice for swimming and sciatica

If you decide to use swimming to alleviate pain from sciatica, it’s a good idea to avoid anything too vigorous. This means opting for sidestrokes over more advanced techniques such as butterfly. If you are experiencing severe back pain, you should also avoid swimming strokes that are known to put a strain on the lower back, such as the breaststroke or the overhead crawl. However, some individuals may find these strokes beneficial for building strength in the back and your swimming competence and technique may also be a factor. It’s advisable to discuss your options with your GP before deciding on what is best for you and then with a little experimentation the best option will become clear.


  1. Veronica Banghart on March 22, 2022 at 12:04 pm

    I had left hip replacement surgery 4 years ago, two days after surgery, I was unable to put any weight on my left leg without intense pain; went back to the doctor and discovered that my GT (Greater Trochanter had broken away. Following a second surgery, hardware and 8 weeks off the leg I started PT. Today, four years later, I still suffer pain daily. Both in my SI joint, between the two incisions, in my knee and down my shin. I try to work out daily and swimming has been one of my favorite exercises, however, it seems every time I swim, later in the day I am, literally, unable to put weight on my left leg. I am now 72 years old and I am desperate to be able to walk pain free. I swim breast stroke and I swim backwards but not back stroke. I also try to cross the pool doing “V” ups to stretch my lower back and glutes. I also “run” in deep water to strengthen my thigh muscles. Which of these exercises do you think is causing my knee, thigh and shin pain?

    • SPRC on March 27, 2022 at 9:22 pm

      Dear Veronica,
      It would be hard to say exactly what the main cause of your pain is from the description you have provided. One thing that might be of use to you is to know that pain in the knee and shin is not a typical sciatica symptom. Referred pain to the knee is common with hip pathology. If the pain is more due to the hip then any weight bearing exercise would be the most likely culprit. Hope that helps. Best wishes.

      • Tayla on April 20, 2022 at 10:21 pm

        Guys what do I do I have bean struggling with really bad pain down my lower back this is happened a week ago today I went to work as a lifeguard and I was doing my staff training I was walking fast then I went into the water and I stopped swimming and I had shooting pain going down my left lower back to my toe what is this a sigh of I’m struggling to get up in the morning what can this be a sign off

        • SPRC on April 21, 2022 at 9:25 pm

          Hi Tayla,
          The symptoms you describe sound like low back related leg pain (LB-LP) aka sciatica. What to do? Go to a healthcare provider (Doctor or physio) and get a diagnosis. They will advise you on what you need to do. Best wishes.

  2. Barbara Mershon on August 6, 2021 at 8:06 pm

    I have struggled with sciatica caused by a sponylothisis for 30 years. I finally had fusion surgery last fall and was told it was a simple one-level fusion. It was a disaster. I have now had 5 spinal surgeries and am in so much pain I spend 20 hours a day in bed. It was suggested by my physical therapist to just walk in the local therapy pool. I’ve tried it four times – but the pain from just getting in the water is so excruciating that I can barely stand being in the water. My doctor and PT have no idea why just getting in the water would cause the pain in my leg to be so bad. Do you have any ideas?

    • SPRC on August 6, 2021 at 10:09 pm

      Sorry to hear the surgery has not gone as you would like Barbara. Hydrotherapy can be useful for rehab sometimes. It is important to remember that the nerves we feel pain in also feel temperature difference as well. It may be the difference in temperature of the water compared to your body temperature causing the nerves to be stimulated as they register the difference in water temperature. It is known that cold temperatures can intensify nerve pain. This extra stimulation of the nerves may not be welcomed by already highly sensitive nerves. Maybe experimenting with water temperature is something to explore. Best wishes.

  3. Vishwanath on November 23, 2020 at 11:19 pm

    I have the sciatic pain for over 15 years (now age 64). Somedays I can walk 5 miles with zero pain, some days after half mile both legs get cramps with pins and needles. As soon as I get up in the morning and step out of bed I get pins and needles in leg but goes as after some time. I am physically active, do pushups, pullups, situps, yoga bend stretch etc, no issues, but as soon as a walk I get it. I get pins and needles on my left arm when I walk. Doctor said surgery is required because there is compression in two disks at top and bottom of spine. I don’t want to get surgery. what should I do try swimming? Any suggestions please?

    • SPRC on November 25, 2020 at 10:55 pm

      Dear Vishwanath,
      It sounds like you are an expert in managing sciatica symptoms and you sound fit and healthy. Based on what you describe and what the doctor has told you it sounds like compression down the spine triggers your symptoms and standing up vertical is the most direct force downwards through the spine. The muscles around our body help support and off load our joints when they are nice and warm and activated. Try some exercises in bed while lying down before getting out of bed in the morning like the ones in our blog Swimming as a form of exercise is good for taking weight off our joints, but walking is good for you too so perhaps a bit of walking and swimming may be the way forward. Walking in water is another option to try when you go swimming. As always experiment to find out what works best for you. Best wishes.

    • Alex Miesch on May 9, 2021 at 4:37 am

      I’m going through bulging disc rehab, the sciatica in my leg (calf and Achilles mainly) when walking has been by far the most stubborn symptom. I would say without a doubt the best thing I have done for the kind of pain you’re describing is “nerve flossing”. If you haven’t done it before do it with caution. Rule 1. Flossing is NOT meant to feel like a stretching exercise, it is extremely gentle movements targeting the nerve in the area it hurts. Flossing does effectively allow the nerve to stretch but in such small increments it doesn’t cause any pain that would be associated with doing a full stretch while sciatica is a problem. “Active Ability” is a YouTuber who has a funny, kind of quirky but excellent video on flossing the calf and achilles. Small movements, don’t push it to feel like stretching, don’t repeat to many times in 1 day even if it only feels good 🙂 I’m not a doctor, physio or anything im just dealing with very similar symptoms specific to walking. Of course my issue may be completely different, but certainly sounds similar. Good luck, I feel for you!

  4. Toey on November 1, 2020 at 1:03 am

    My piriformis syndrome gone after I went to swimming for hours when I went to the beach, I was so happy. It last the whole day after that but once I woke up the pain came back again. Why is that?? Please advise.

    • SPRC on November 1, 2020 at 3:32 pm

      Hello Toey,
      Good news that the swimming helped your sciatica symptoms. As to why they disappeared and came back could be for lots of reasons. The act of exercising releases endorphins, which are naturally pain killers or maybe you did something after swimming or while sleeping that triggered your symptoms again. Who knows? Stay active and if swimming helps keep it up. We hope you continue to improve.

      • Ali on May 25, 2021 at 11:05 am

        I fell badly on right buttock 4 years ago and have had pain nearly every day since. I have tried physios chiropractors and had had varied comments it was piriformis or it was SI joint or high hamstring. I can have pain in piriformis then it seems to shift to SI joint then feels painful at top of leg under the butt area. It does get stiff and sore when sitting. I have now being doing water walking every day but still getting a bit of pain. Can you advise if this is a good exercise for this condition and can you advise which water stretches I can do with the water noodle as well please?

        • SPRC on May 28, 2021 at 10:44 am

          It is sometimes quite difficult to get to the root cause of sciatic pain type symptoms. You may want to research deep gluteal syndrome, which is the more up to date description for piriformis syndrome. Staying active is key to recovery so you are definitely on the right track. In terms of stretching discuss with your physio trying a program of nerve or neural flossing. They will know what that is. Best wishes.

  5. Sheila on October 21, 2020 at 2:10 pm

    I have sciatica resulting from a now improved hamstring strain. How long is this likely to last and will swimming help?

    • SPRC on October 23, 2020 at 8:03 pm

      Hello Sheila,
      You probably already know that at the top of the back of leg the hamstring and sciatic nerve are in close proximity. We have written a blog on about the length of time sciatica can last that you can read here.
      Swimming can be great for general health and helping us to remain active. That in itself is helpful for sciatica and many other ailments. Best wishes.

  6. Katy Vincent on July 29, 2020 at 10:16 am

    I have been experiencing a terrible dull ache type pain in my left buttock and some days it’s bearly there but most days it just awful. It never goes anywhere else, at first I thought it was my hip area but I think the buttock area is more accurate. It doesn’t move and doesn’t go anywhere else. My GP diagnosed over the phone and the physio described a few exercises to me, again over the phone. I am going to try a swim to see if that helps. I am not sleeping because of the pain. I am really struggling. Is it worth me pushing for a face to face consultation?

    • SPRC on July 29, 2020 at 7:14 pm

      Hello Katy,
      Hip pain can sometimes refer into the gluteal area but more commonly towards the knee. Pain deep in the gluteal area could be a sciatica symptom too. If you have tried everything that the healthcare professionals have suggested with telephone consultations and you are not seeing any improvement or getting worse then at some point you have to request a physical appointment so you can be examined. A physical examination with a full history will give a more accurate diagnosis. It is difficult at this time to make that judgement call of whether you need a physical appointment, but you should trust your judgement. You know how you feel and how it is affecting you. Hope you are feeling better soon.

  7. Karen on March 3, 2020 at 2:25 pm

    Is there a movement in aquafit I should not do ? Every time I start aquafit my sciatica acts up. No aquafit movement hurts in the moment but the pain starts in bed.

    • SPRC on March 4, 2020 at 3:24 pm

      Hello Karen,
      Sounds like you are pretty active, which is good to hear. You should definitely keep that up. Whether or not it is Aquafit specifically that is triggering your symptoms or just any physical activities that are a bit too vigorous it is hard to say. Maybe you could try dialling the movements down a bit. Maybe you could try reducing the range of motion a bit particularly any movements that require you to lift the knee high and flex at the hip. Hope your symptoms settle soon.

      • Nikita patil on March 25, 2020 at 10:43 am

        Does sciatica related to body weight?

        • SPRC on March 25, 2020 at 7:46 pm

          Hi Nikita,
          Your weight does not determine whether you have sciatica symptoms or not, but if you do have sciatica being over weight may make the symptoms worse.

    • Amy on September 29, 2020 at 4:49 am

      Great article. Except whoever wrote this is not experienced with the sciatic pain in the leg coupled with swimming. Side stroke or freestyle (front crawl) is actually the worst for this nerve. Breaststroke and backstroke relieves the pain better. The reason being is that any movement where the posterior (your backside) portion of your muscle needs to tighten for balance or kicking, it will trigger the nerve to be pinched. When swimming freestyle, the rotation of your body will force your posterior core to rebalance every time. Since your posterior is closer to the surface of the water, you will be exhorting more to bring that side back up. When you’re swimming on your back for backstroke, your posterior core muscles are facing the bottom of the pool, so every time you rotate and rock back to that side, it’s going down and not up like when doing freestyle.

      • SPRC on September 29, 2020 at 10:00 am

        Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge Amy. Everyone is different and with a little trial and error can find out what works best for them.

      • Ambereen on October 9, 2020 at 8:05 am

        I too was doing better with breaststroke, but pain came back when I triedfree style. So will definitely stick to breast stroke only

  8. Ben on February 19, 2020 at 4:58 pm

    Sciatica pain in right calf and foot whats the best exercise .

    • SPRC on February 19, 2020 at 9:11 pm

      Make sure you get some advice from a healthcare professional like a physiotherapist Ben. In a previous blog we describe some exercises you can try before getting out of bed in the morning if you have sciatica. Give those a try and see if they help. Best regards.

  9. William on January 31, 2020 at 9:45 am

    If I pat on my lower back I can feel a shooting pain down my right leg on every pat right to the back of my knee. I have been swimming all this week and still the pain is there. Will this pain go away.

    • SPRC on February 2, 2020 at 7:40 pm

      Hello William,
      What you describe sounds like lower back nerve root irritation causing sciatic pain symptoms, but the best thing to do is to get it checked out by a health care professional like a physiotherapist or your doctor to confirm. If it is sciatica the pain will eventually go away if you learn about what you need to do and follow any sound advice given.
      Best regards

  10. Sabrina on November 25, 2019 at 10:38 pm

    Is it normal to have sciatica in both legs with numbness and struggling to weight bear on both legs ? Accompanied with lower back pain to

    • SPRC on November 26, 2019 at 9:55 am

      Hi Sabrina, it is unusual to have sciatica in both legs at the same time. If you have not done so yet you need to visit your Doctor to get a diagnosis. Pain in both legs can be a symptom of something called cauda equina. Don’t delay in going to the Doctor.

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