Most low back pain and sciatica problems will benefit from a regular routine of hamstring stretching. Tightness in the hamstrings places increased stress on the low back and often aggravates or even causes some of the conditions that lead to low back pain and/or sciatica pain.
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles located in the back of the thigh. They run from the pelvis down to the knee, and help bend the knee and extend the hip. Because most daily activities do not stretch the hamstrings, they are often overly tight and specific stretching exercises are needed to keep them healthy and extended.
Keys to effective hamstring stretches:
- When doing any type of hamstring stretches, patients should avoid bouncing, which can trigger a muscle spasm. Instead, enter the stretch gently and hold it.
- Start with holding the hamstring stretch for 10 seconds, and gradually increase to 30 seconds.
- Remember to breathe while holding the stretch.
- Find the position that is most comfortable to perform the stretching. Depending on the patient’s specific medical condition and level of pain, the lying down position may be preferable and comfortable. In particular, patients with low back pain or sciatica should choose whichever position is most tolerable for their back while still giving a gentle stretch.
- Perform hamstring stretches twice daily. Many people find it is helpful to tie the stretching activity to something else they do twice daily, such as brushing the teeth. If hamstring stretching is only done before exercising, most people will not do it enough.
Hamstring Stretch While Lying on the Back
Most patients with low back pain or leg pain will benefit from hamstring stretching exercises done while lying on the back. These hamstring stretching positions are the least stressful.
- Lie on the back, supporting the thigh behind the knee with the hand or with a towel, slowly straighten the knee until a stretch is felt in the back of the thigh, trying to get the bottom of the foot to face the ceiling, one leg at a time (Figure 1). Hold the position initially for 10 seconds, and gradually work up to 20-30 seconds.
- Another low stress hamstring stretch is to lie back on the floor with the buttocks against a wall at a corner or by a door jamb. Keeping one leg on the floor, place the foot of the alternate leg against the wall and try to gently push the knee straight so the raised leg and the leg on the floor make a 90 degree angle. Hold the position for 10 to 20 seconds.
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Hamstring Stretches While Sitting
Although stretching while in a sitting position is less gentle than lying on the back, hamstring stretches can also be done in a sitting position, where the degree of stretch can be varied based on the placement of the leg:
- While sitting at the edge of a chair, straighten one leg in front of the body with the heel on the floor. Then, sit up straight and try pushing the navel towards the thigh without leaning the trunk of the body forwards. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds, then repeat 3 times for each leg.
- Many people – and especially women – tend to be more flexible and may need to elevate the foot on a stool or chair to get a deep enough stretch.
For more information see Specific Hamstring Stretches for Back Pain Relief