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Best Exercises to Get Relief from a Pinched Nerve in Your Low Back, According to Physical Therapists

Learn what a pinched nerve in the low back is and how to treat it, especially with exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: May 3, 2023
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A pinched nerve is a nerve that becomes compressed (or squeezed) when surrounding tissues irritate or press on it, causing sharp pain, weakness, numbness, and “pins and needles” tingling anywhere along the nerve path. Pinched nerves can happen all over the body — in the shoulder, neck, upper back, or lower back. Often, they’re caused by inflammation in the region of the nerve root as it exits the spine. 

Symptoms of a pinched nerve can vary wildly, from mild tingling to an intense burning sensation. Most cases of pinched nerves aren’t serious, but even mild symptoms can affect your mobility and make daily living difficult. Take, for instance, the sciatic nerve that runs down the back of the leg. “When you do anything that stretches that nerve, you can get more pain,” says CJ Morrow, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “Things like bending over to pick something up off the floor or putting on your shoes or socks can be tough to do when someone experiences sciatica.” 

Most cases of a pinched nerve usually resolve with time, but you don’t have to just wait it out. At-home treatment can help minimize pain and speed up your recovery. Here, learn more about what causes a pinched sciatic nerve, and how to treat it — especially with exercises from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

CJ Morrow, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Morrow is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic specialist with a special interest in the intersection of mental and physical health.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

Causes of a Pinched Nerve in the Lower Back

Several conditions can lead to a pinched nerve in the lower back, but the overarching cause is related to lumbar spondylosis, which is characterized by natural, gradual changes to the spinal discs and spinal facet joints over time. Although it may sound scary, this typical wear-and-tear doesn’t have to cause back pain. Research actually shows that many people with these structural changes don’t experience any symptoms. However, in some, they can lead to:

  • Herniated disc. When the center of one of your spinal discs — the “shock absorbers” that separate and cushion your vertebrae (spinal bones) — pushes against its outer ring, it can impinge on spinal nerve roots, causing symptoms to radiate from the lower back through the hips, buttocks, and down your leg into your foot and toes. A herniated disc is a common cause of a pinched nerve in the lower back. 

  • Spinal stenosis. Age-related spinal changes can lead to a narrowing of the spinal canal that reduces the available space for the spinal cord and nerve roots.

Exercises for Pinched Nerve in Lower Back

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These gentle exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists offer many benefits for irritated spinal nerves. They strengthen your core (a strong core promotes a strong back, which can help with sciatica) and allow you to gain flexibility through your hips and low back. “Basically, they help calm down the nerve and work to build support and strength through the area,” says Dr. Morrow. 

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

Other Treatments for a Pinched Nerve in the Lower Back

Symptoms of a pinched nerve in your lower back often go away on their own within a few weeks, but these treatment options can help speed your recovery: 

  • Adjust your posture with pillows. “Sitting in a slumped position can pull on the nerves and cause more sensitivity,” explains Dr. Morrow. Adding a small pillow behind your back or underneath your hips tilts your pelvis forward slightly and helps your spine “stack up” better. 

  • A little rest — but not bed rest. “Movement is medicine, but there are times when you need to give your body a short five to 10 minute rest — and that’s an okay thing to do,” says Dr. Morrow. For days when the pain gets overwhelming, find an “escape position” that you can put your body in that allows you to relax and feel better. “Use your escape position as a way of providing rest while you’re building your body back up to be stronger and more flexible,” she says. 

  • Ice and heat therapy. “Both are great,” says Dr. Morrow. “They’re not going to help the pinched nerve directly, but they may make you feel better so that you can move more.” 

  • Walking. While it won’t un-pinch a nerve, the postures you’re in while walking typically relieve stress on a pinched sciatic nerve. “As you walk, you gently stretch the nerve through its range of motion,” says Dr. Morrow. Walking can also increase blood circulation to the damaged nerve, which may facilitate healing and reduce pain. 

  • Medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for sciatic nerve pain. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history. 

PT Tip: Pre-Treat With Heat 

Adding heat before or during exercise — including the exercises listed above — can help relax muscles that might be tense. “This can be especially helpful if you’re concerned about the pain while you move,” says Dr. Morrow. 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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References 

  1. Davis, D., & Arvind Vasudevan. (2019, November 15). Sciatica. StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507908/

  2. Romeo, V., Covello, M., Salvatore, E., Parente, C. A., Abbenante, D., Biselli, R., Ciriello, M., Musolino, P., Salvatore, M., & Cangiano, A. (2019). High Prevalence of Spinal Magnetic Resonance Imaging Findings in Asymptomatic Young Adults (18-22 Yrs) Candidate to Air Force Flight. Spine, 44(12), 872–878. doi:10.1097/BRS.0000000000002961

  3. Sciatic Nerve Injury. (n.d.). Physiopedia. Retrieved from https://www.physio-pedia.com/Sciatic_Nerve_Injury

  4. Sciatica. (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/sciatica

  5. Hochschuler, S. (2023, February 10). What You Need to Know About Sciatica. Spine Health. https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/sciatica/what-you-need-know-about-sciatica