Sciatica pain is extremely common, with as much as 40% of the population suffering from it at some point in their lives. Despite this, there are still many misconceptions that circulate about the condition. People sometimes mistakenly refer to any type of lower back or radiating leg pain as sciatica. The condition is more specific than that, involving pain originating in the sciatic nerve. Here’s what you should know if you think you could be experiencing sciatica pain.
What Is Sciatica?
The sciatica nerve is roughly two centimeters in diameter. It’s the longest nerve in the body, extending from the lower back through the hips, buttocks, and down each leg. The nerve supports motor function in the lower body, including the hamstrings, calf muscles, and some parts of the foot. When the nerve becomes irritated or compressed, it causes radiating pain known as sciatica.
What Causes Sciatica?
Sciatica has two main causes: inflammation which irritates the nerve, or compression of the nerve. The latter often leads to more severe motor dysfunction. The nerve can become compressed by a herniated or bulging spinal disc. Spinal bone spurs may also compress the nerve. More rarely, it can be caused by a tumor or nerve damage in conditions such as diabetes. Additionally, osteoarthritis can cause the opening through which the nerve flows to become narrowed, leading to nerve injury and sciatica symptoms.
One inflammatory cause of sciatica is piriformis syndrome. In this condition, the piriformis muscle in the buttock spasms and puts pressure on the sciatic nerve. It can be caused by overuse of the muscle from activities such as walking or running.
Sciatica symptoms can vary widely, and no two cases are exactly alike. Most patients report pain radiating from the lower back to the leg, typically only on one side of the body. The discomfort can range from a mild ache to excruciating, debilitating pain. It may also manifest as a burning sensation, a jolt, or a feeling like an electric shock. Some people find the pain worsens with movements such as sneezes or coughs, and that prolonged sitting can further aggravate symptoms. It’s also possible to feel numbness and tingling, or a combination of all these sensations.
What Can You Do to Relieve Sciatica Pain?
In many cases, sciatica is temporary and may resolve itself within days or even just a few hours. In some instances, however, persistent pain will call for professional treatment. First, you can try to alleviate pain with the following home remedies:
- Hot or cold therapy to reduce pain and inflammation
- Avoiding any activities that could have contributed to the condition, such as heavy lifting
- Practicing proper posture
There are also several stretches you can try at home to externally rotate the hip, sometimes bringing relief:
- Try a seated spinal stretch. Sit on the ground with your legs extended straight in front of you, keeping the feet flexed. Bend your right leg and place the foot on the outside of the left knee. Position your left elbow so it’s on the outside of the bent knee, gently stretching the back. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
- Lay flat on your back and bring one leg in, hugging the knee. Pull it across the body, bringing it towards the opposite shoulder. Only go as far as is comfortable. The goal is to feel relief in the back. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.
- Practice pigeon pose, in which the right leg is bent in front of you with the outer side pressed flat against the ground, and your other leg is stretched out behind you. Keep your weight in your legs, sitting up straight and keeping your arms on either side of your front leg. Take a deep breath and gradually lean forward while exhaling, shifting your weight into your arms. Repeat on the other side.
If the self-care approaches above don’t bring relief, an interventional pain management specialist can help you find relief. The proper therapy for sciatica will depend on its underlying cause. If the pain is caused by a herniated disc, you may need surgical intervention, but your pain management specialist will likely try non-invasive measures first.
Anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants often help. Your doctor might also recommend steroid injections, which can minimize inflammation around the nerve.
Physical therapy may help you correct any issues with your posture which could be contributing to the pain. Through targeted exercises, you can also increase flexibility and strengthen supporting muscle groups to control symptoms and prevent sciatica from recurring.
Sciatica Pain Prevention
Once your sciatica pain has diminished, you’ll want to do what you can to prevent future attacks. While many people worry that certain exercises may have triggered the pain in the first place, the best thing you can do to avoid a subsequent occurrence is to stay active. In addition to the stretches listed above, low-impact exercise, such as stationary cycling, yoga, and water aerobics are good choices.
Of course, you must first address any pain you’re experiencing before you feel well enough to get moving again. The specialists from United Physician Group Pain Management can get you started with an individualized approach to sciatica relief. Schedule an appointment at one of our locations to start your journey towards pain relief today.