By definition, ‘sciatica’ refers to compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve. As the longest nerve in the body, running from the low back down through the entire leg, this irritation can have widely varying causes and symptoms for each person. Depending on where and how it shows up, different stretches or self-massage techniques may be more effective for different people. That said, there is some myofascial continuity along the entire back-leg line, which all these stretches target in some way. By softening one portion of the line, other spots have more room to release as well.
In the outer hip, six muscles that run roughly parallel to one another all externally rotate the leg at the hip. The sciatic nerve runs over the top of all but one of them, the piriformis. When the piriformis is tight, it pinches the sciatic nerve against the other rotator muscles. Working out the kinks in all these muscles can allow freer movement of the sciatic nerve, and the whole hip in general.
If you have a basketball, foam roller, or something moderately firm that rolls somewhere between 8″ and 12″ in diameter, you can use it to self-massage the hip and leg. Try starting by sitting on the ball on one side, with it directly under your sit-bone. From there, roll slowly backward and off to the side, using your hands and opposite leg for support as needed, so that the ball roughly traces a bikini-underwear line around to the front of your hip. You can also roll along your hamstrings, quads, or other muscles of the leg and thigh.
Stretch it out:
Whether sitting or lying down, many twists can be used to get into the hip rotators and stretch the whole area. Lying down, bend one leg and bring that knee across your body. Play with angle (aiming it closer to your shoulder or farther down) and how far you let your hip come off the ground until you find a juicy spot. Sitting up, a similar stretch can be done with one leg out in front of you and the other knee bent and that foot across the outstretched leg. Try hugging that knee to your chest, or twisting towards it, to feel different effects. From there, again either sitting or lying down, bring the ankle of the bent leg to the opposite thigh/knee, and bend the straight leg to bring the foot of the stretching leg towards your body. Make sure to stretch both sides, even if only one feels tight – not only is it good for balance in general, but the body sends messages back and forth and working the “good” side can help the other side loosen up.
Whether from sitting, biking, standing, inactivity, or any number of other lifestyle factors, many people have stiff, tight, or otherwise “gunky” hamstrings. This is often related to sciatica symptoms, and softening the backs of the legs can often help with posture as well as sciatica symptoms. One easy way to allow your legs enough time to sink into a stretch and release connective tissues as well as muscles is to lie on your back with your legs up a wall. Do get as close to the wall as possible, so the entire length of both legs is against the wall. If this is too much of a stretch, fold up a blanket or towel (or two, or three) to go under your lower back. Make sure you can stay here comfortably, and give yourself at least 3-5 minutes to unwind and let go here.
Be gentle with yourself! Whether stretching or rolling out tight spots, make sure you stay comfortable and able to breathe deeply and easily. By working slowly and persistently within your comfort zone, your body can learn to open and soften. Too much stretch or pressure can not only do damage to your tissues, but can also reinforce a pattern of bracing against harsh stimulus and create more tension.