Is The Elliptical Good for Sciatica?

Nerve root pain often called Sciatica, is a kind of back pain where the pain radiates along the sciatic nerve path, i.e., the nerve branches from the lower back through the hips and runs down at the end of the leg. People experience back pain in different forms.

The pain may arise immediately after an injury or can present itself suddenly over time. This pain can be short-lived (acute) or long-lasting (chronic). The diagnosis of sciatica is simple and can be easily identified. The pain usually occurs on one side of the leg.

But is the elliptical machine good for sciatica? The elliptical is good for sciatica because the type of exercise strengthens the muscles supporting your lower spine and is crucial to relieve stress on the sciatic nerve. Let’s look at this in more detail.

What causes Sciatica?

The primary cause of sciatica pain is compression of the sciatic nerve. The bones present in the human spinal cord are called vertebrae.

The vertebrae are formed at the very beginning of the skull and end with the tailbone. Discs cushion bones that form the spine.

The spinal column is located between each vertebra, and the discs act as shock absorbers. Abnormalities in the discs or changes in the spine structure lead to sciatica.

A herniated disc, slipped disc or ruptured disc, bone spur on the spine or narrowing of the spine (spinal stenosis) causes the compression of the sciatic nerve leading to inflammation, pain or numbness in the affected leg.

  • Spinal stenosis is a condition where the vertebral canal narrows abnormally in the spine. This causes compression of the nerve roots resulting in pain and numbness in the hands, arms, legs or feet, depending on the site of compression. Spinal stenosis is usually caused by osteoarthritis, although sometimes it may be caused by bulging discs.
  • Injuries in the sciatic nerve or lumbar spine can also cause sciatic pain. If a tumour is found in the lumbar spinal canal, the sciatic nerve contracts and may lead to sciatica pain.
  • Piriformis syndrome is a neuromuscular disorder where stiffening of the piriformis muscle in the buttocks may lead to sciatica pain. 

Sciatica symptoms may get worse while sitting, trying to stand up, bending the spine forward, twisting the spine, lying down, or coughing. Applying a heat pack over the hip region or simple walking may help relieve sciatica pain.

Once diagnosed, doctors prescribe anti-inflammatory medications and massage therapy and advise you to take plenty of rest. 

Is The Elliptical Good for Sciatica?
People exercising in gym to keep body in shape

Is the elliptical trainer a good exercise option for Sciatica?

If you have sciatica, you might consider getting started with some exercise. Exercise strengthens the muscles supporting your lower spine and is crucial to relieve stress on the sciatic nerve.

One of the exercise options to consider is using an elliptical machine. The key benefits of using an elliptical for alleviating pain caused by sciatica are enlisted below:

  • Using an elliptical machine is safe to engage in low-impact cardio exercise as it prevents contact with the ground. When using an elliptical machine, you avoid the stress radiating from the legs to the lower back because you’re using raised foot pedals that don’t require contact with the ground. The pressure on your joints is reduced to a large extent while engaging in enough motion to keep your muscles strong.
  • Using an elliptical machine has similar benefits to riding a bike, where the pace can be easily controlled. You can try additional exercises once the muscles have regained strength and decreased pain. 
  • An elliptical works other muscle groups. As the lower back muscles become more robust, the elliptical can be used to strengthen muscles in other areas of the body. One can use the ramp control to change the muscle groups you want to target. Try a higher ramp setting if you’re going to work your glutes and quadriceps.
  • An elliptical minimizes the stress at the source. A flexed position on an elliptical machine tends to be comfortable for people suffering from lumbar joint or disc issues contributing to sciatic pain. Since ellipticals are adjustable, it is easy to find that position which provides the least resistance to the lower back.
  • If you are diagnosed with sciatica, doctors advise you not to perform weight-bearing exercises for about 4 to 8 weeks. Elliptical workouts complement aerobic activities like walking and gentle core muscle strengthening exercises to give the best results. Some modern elliptical machines have ski poles that help with upper body conditioning and foot pedals that move in either direction, targeting other muscle groups. But to do these exercises,  it is imperative to learn proper techniques from a professional. Deadlifts and squats should be avoided.

Does elliptical make sciatica worse?

Elliptical machines are pretty popular and the go-to cardio equipment for most people. But if you are suffering from lower back pain, it is vital to assess your health and then exercise using an elliptical. 

Janice Moorside, a researcher and a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo, and Professor Stuart Mc Gill came across some interesting data while studying the effects of using elliptical machines on lower back pain. They found that participants in the study adopted a more flexed posture than walking, regardless of speed, stride length, or hand position.

Also, the participants twisted more on the elliptical than while walking. Repeated flexing and twisting of the spine is proven to encourage spine degeneration and induce pain. If you have a bit of disc degeneration or a sensitive spine, this may not be the medium of choice for you. 

Janice Moorside concluded that walking would be a much better form of exercise over an elliptical for people with lumbar disc problems. Individuals with lumbar disc problems, or lower back pain, should refrain from using the elliptical.

Can I use the elliptical with lower back pain?

  • Being sedentary is a common risk factor for back pain. According to the Spine Universe website, aerobic exercises have been found to improve spine health. Elliptical training is an aerobic exercise which burns calories with the added benefit of weight loss. Having excess abdominal fat can exacerbate or cause lower back pain.Back pain can affect people of all ages. In fact, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke, 20% of people who suffer from acute back pain eventually suffer from chronic back pain.

  • The back is an intricate and delicate part of the body.  A single wrong move can cause back pain or may flare up existing lower back pain. Before starting a new exercise program, consult your healthcare practitioner primarily if you have never used an elliptical.

  • Lower back pain affects around one-third of the UK adult population each year. Around 20% (1 in 15 of the population) will consult their GP about their back pain. If you suffer from this condition, it’s essential to find the right exercises and equipment that put minimum pressure on your back.

Is elliptical good for lower back pain

  • The elliptical machine is a great workout machine for people suffering from lower back, knee or neck pain because it places minimal stress on the joints. In the case of an elliptical machine, very little force moves through the body because of impact, unlike running. Running involves “pounding” motion against the floor, a high-impact exercise, while the elliptical machine focuses on lateral movement with minimal impact. 

  • The elliptical machine keeps the spine in an optimum spinal flexion position. The elliptical machine requires you to stand upright, thereby correcting your posture and maintaining the alignment of the joints and bones. Correct posture reduces the pressure on your lower back, and the weight gets distributed evenly in the body.

  • Flexible resistance gives the ability to work out at the level that best fits the person working out while still maintaining the low impact benefits of the machine.
  • The elliptical works on the upper body muscles and the core muscles. By strengthening these muscles, your back is better protected. In addition, this muscle strength adds extra support and keeps the spine neutral throughout the day.

As we have seen the benefits of using an elliptical machine, certain aspects must be considered before using it, especially if you suffer from lower back pain. Some of them are listed below:

  • The elliptical uses an irregular stride motion during the workout. This uneven stride may place stress on the lower back.  Trainers initially recommend a few elliptical exercises to start with over the course of a week and how these affect your body. If you find that this kind of stride motion negatively impacts you, your trainer needs to change the workout. 

  • While using an elliptical, maintaining a proper upper body form is vital. Many people tend to lean forward and forget to engage their core, moving forward using their arms. 

  • If you have previous injuries, it is essential to consult a healthcare practitioner and find out what exercise machines are best suitable to start with. Because sometimes, the irregular stride motion of an elliptical may aggravate old injuries.

  • Improper footwear is another factor that may increase the risk of lower back pain due to irregular stride motion of the elliptical. Ensure that you wear sneakers and not flip-flops, dress shoes, or other casual shoes. 

To conclude, this article gives an overview of how elliptical machines prove helpful for people suffering from sciatica and what factors we need to consider before embarking on a long term exercise regime.

The information we shared would help you make informed decisions and lead you to a healthier lifestyle.

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MSc Biotechnology and Healthcare Communications Professional

Science content writer, editor. A postgraduate in Biotechnology with extensive content writing experience in Healthcare, Biotech, and Clinical research. Therapy Areas include but are not limited to Diabetes, Oncology, Virology, Immunology.