Does Swimming Help Sciatica?

Irritation and injury to the sciatic nerve can result in a condition known as sciatica. When you develop this condition, you experience radiating pain. In some cases, the pain becomes severe, resulting in disabling effects. According to one study, up to 40% of people may experience sciatica symptoms at some point in their lives. On an annual basis, between 1% and 5% of people have sciatica symptoms.

Recovering from sciatica generally starts with some rest. Once the body is given some time to rest, however, getting up and moving becomes important. The discomfort and pain caused by sciatica may limit your abilities at this point. Fortunately, there are a few low-impact exercises that can be helpful. We take a look at a common question – does swimming help sciatica? We explore the effects of swimming on the body and offer a few tips to consider.

How Does Swimming Affect the Body?

Swimming is considered an exceptionally beneficial activity for a number of reasons. One of the main factors that make swimming a good exercise is the fact that this is a low-impact activity. What this means is that swimming does not place excessive stress on your body. When you go for a run, as an example, you are constantly putting stress on your knees and ankles. With weight lifting, your shoulders, wrists, and elbow joints are constantly under stress.

Swimming works multiple muscle groups in your body but does not put stress on your joints. Swimming as physical activity gives you access to many health benefits.

In one study, researchers found that swimming could be a useful method for reducing blood pressure. There is also a study that found swimming is an activity that can be helpful among people who have trouble controlling their blood sugar.

Another study looked at how swimming could affect pain and stiffness among osteoarthritis patients. There were 48 individuals who participated in the study. All of the participants were middle-aged, diagnosed with osteoarthritis, and considered sedentary at the time of the study. Two groups were used, with one of the groups introduced to a swimming program.

The study was conducted over a three-month period. Those who participated in swimming sessions reported numerous improvements in their symptoms. These included:

  • Enhancements in quality of life
  • Reduced stiffness and pain in affected joints
  • Improved handgrip strength
  • Improved flexion power
  • Improvements in isokinetic knee extension

Does Swimming Help Sciatica?

Due to the low impact that swimming has on the body, many people are interested to know if this is a good option for people with sciatica.

Sciatica is a condition that affects the sciatic nerve. This nerve runs down the spine and branches out at the lower back. From here, the nerve runs down both legs. If sciatica develops, it usually means there is compression or a pinching action affecting the nerve. This can be due to a herniated disc, for example.

A part of the nerve gets pinched between the discs, which causes it to become irritated and inflamed. This causes radiating pain that usually affects only one leg. The pain can feel disabling and limit your capabilities – with many people finding it becomes harder to perform day-to-day activities.

During the recovery period, a healthcare provider will advise you to remain in bed for a few days. During recovery, you start with rest. After resting for a few days, you move on to some light activity. At the point where you become more active, you should ensure you choose the right exercises. This is where swimming can be a helpful option.

Is Swimming Good or Bad for Sciatica?

While pain radiates down the leg in a patient with sciatica, the symptoms usually start at the lower back. The low back pain can be disabling. When it comes to looking at how swimming may affect a person, we should look at studies that focus on these symptoms.

One study focused on determining how aquatic workouts would affect lower back pain. The researchers looked at a total of eight clinical trials. The trials were conducted with a total of 331 participants. Researchers report a reduction in pain and an improvement in physical function among individuals who participated in swimming sessions. These studies did not report any side effects.

With this in mind, we can clearly see that swimming tends to be a good option for people with sciatica. Consider all the evidence provided thus far. The low-impact activity helps with pain, which is one of the primary symptoms associated with sciatica. At the same time, muscle tissue is strengthened in the process. People also report significant improvements in their functioning when they use swimming as an exercise.

When it comes to asking, does  swimming help sciatica? and in particular the pain symptoms, we should take a look at how the activity affects the body. When you swim, your brain releases endorphins. This is the case with any type of exercise. Endorphins have pain-relieving properties. Thus, by causing endorphins to be released, there is a physiological explanation why swimming helps with sciatica pain.

What Swimming Stroke Is Good for Sciatica?

There is a significant number of swimming strokes that you can take advantage of. By combining different strokes, you can easily mix things up. This helps to reduce the risk of finding the session boring. You add more versatility to your exercise program. In addition to keeping things interesting, different strokes also help to work more muscles in your body.

When it comes to sciatica, however, it is important to be careful. While swimming itself is considered a beneficial activity, there are some strokes to avoid. This is especially the case if you are still at an early stage of recovery with sciatica. At this time, you want to avoid any type of activity that will be hard on your back.

With this in mind, consider starting out with some basic strokes. The sidestroke is one of the best options for people with sciatica. It is also a swimming stroke often recommended for people who have back pain problems. In addition to being a safer choice, the sidestroke is also very easy to learn. This makes it a great option for people who do not swim much but want to use this activity to help with their sciatica recovery.

Is Walking in A Pool Good for Sciatica?

Some people have more severe symptoms when they develop sciatica. In such a scenario, your functioning may be more affected compared to a person with mild sciatica. This can make even low-impact activities hard. If this is a situation you find yourself in, then walking in a pool could be a good alternative.

Even though swimming is a low-impact exercise, there may be times where your pain does not allow you to go for a swim. Walking in the pool adds a bit of resistance to your step. The resistance will be beneficial without causing you to experience pain when moving around.

This can be a good start. Once you have rested enough to initiate the healing process, you can begin by taking a walk in the pool. As the recovery progresses, however, you should consider taking an actual swim. Be sure to take your own body into consideration throughout the process. Only move on to the next phase of recovery when you feel your body is ready. 

What Should You Not Do with Sciatica?

Swimming is a safe activity for people with sciatica, but there are some exceptions. Certain swimming strokes affect muscles in the back more than others. Due to the effects that sciatica often has on the lower back, you should aim to avoid these particular strokes.

When you choose a stroke that works your back more, it causes strain. This could result in the sciatica pain becoming worse instead of improving.

The overhead crawl is an important swimming stroke to avoid. Apart from this stroke, consider avoiding the butterfly and breaststroke during the recovery phase too. These strokes all require movement that affects the spine. For example, the butterfly stroke causes an arch in your lower back. When you perform this move, you are putting stress on your facet joints.

 The last thing you want is to cause the sciatic nerve to suffer another injury, whether that is from further pinching or due to excessive strain.

Tips for Swimming with Sciatica

We have provided evidence that swimming is a beneficial activity. We also looked at how this activity could be useful for people with sciatica. Now, we want to share a few tips to help you get the most out of a swimming session while recovering from sciatica.

One of the most important tips is to ensure you understand your body. No fixed swimming program exists that will help every single person. You need to consider how severe your condition is, what symptoms you experience, and how good you are at swimming. These are only some of the factors that would affect a swimming program for your situation.

Tips for Swimming with Sciatica

Also, consider opting for water therapy in addition to swimming. In fact, some people find it useful to start out with a few sessions of water therapy. You take advantage of warm water with this type of therapy. The heat from the water assists in reducing tightness in your muscles. This can enhance the range of motion while performing exercises in the pool. Water therapy also usually introduces you to very low-impact exercises.

By performing these exercises in water, you gain the benefit of resistance added by the liquid. You also reduce the amount of stress that the exercise places on your back.

As a final tip, make sure you progress gradually. If you are at an early recovery stage, you do not want to push things too far. Early on, low-impact activities help to keep muscles engaged without causing you to strain your back. Slowly introduce more exercises and longer sessions to your treatment program. This way, you ensure muscles become stronger, and recovery progresses before exposing your body to exercises that are a bit more intense.

Conclusion

Swimming has a low impact on the body, making it a good option for people with sciatica. When it comes to asking, does swimming help sciatica?, it is still important to avoid pushing the body too far. Start with light sessions. Gradually increase the intensity by adding more strokes to your session in the pool. At the same time, understand which strokes to leave for post-recovery. Some strokes cause an arch in your back, resulting in excess strain – which is one thing to avoid when using swimming for sciatica.

Dr Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed holds a baccalaureate of Medicine and Surgery. He has completed his degree at the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed believes in providing knowledgeable information to readers. Other than his passion for writing, Dr. Ahmed spends his time outside the hospital, either reading or at the gym.

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