Pinched nerves getting on your nerves? If you’re suffering from a radiating lower back pain that worsens as you sit or lay in bed, it could be sciatic nerve pain. Also called sciatica, it is a type of lower back pain that extends to your hips, buttocks and legs.
Toughing it out amid sciatic nerve pain can be challenging, but you are not alone. According to this research, up to 40 percent of the adult population have experienced sciatica at some point in their lives.
Overcome sciatic nerve pain by learning more about it — its symptoms, possible causes, how to manage pain and flare-ups and prevention tips — in this article.
What is sciatica?
Sciatica refers to the pain felt along the longest and widest nerve in your body, the sciatic nerve, which starts at the lower back and runs through the hips, buttocks, legs and feet.
It is not a condition, but rather a symptom of another problem, with the pain caused by irritation, compression and inflammation of the sciatic nerve.
What are the causes of sciatica?
Sciatic nerve pain is usually caused by a ruptured disc in the spinal column that inflames the nerve. The bones that make up your spine, the vertebrae, are cushioned by disks of connective tissue. When these get worn out because of an acute injury or overuse, it can put pressure on your sciatic nerves.
The abnormal narrowing of your spinal canal, called “spinal stenosis”, can put pressure on your spinal cord and pinch your sciatic nerve, too.
A condition called “spondylolisthesis” compresses your sciatic nerve when a spinal bone extends forward over another.
A rare form of neuromuscular disorder, “piriformis” syndrome triggers sciatica when the muscle that connects the lower portion of your spine to your thigh bones, involuntarily contracts.
Other problems with the back muscles and bones, tumors and infections can likewise cause inflammation of the sciatic nerve, causing pain that radiates towards the back and leg.
What are the symptoms of sciatica?
Sciatic nerve pain typically starts on the lower back and affects only one side of the body. The other common signs of sciatica are:
- A shooting pain in the lower back or hip, or constant pain on one side of your buttocks that spreads down to your thighs or feet.
- Weakness and numbness in the back of the leg or difficulty moving the foot.
- Limited range of movement or mobility, as simple activities like sitting and lying down may worsen sciatica symptoms.
Pain intensity could range from mild to severe, but in most cases, it can be addressed by home treatments without the need for surgery.
What are the risk factors for sciatica?
Age — As we age, our spine undergoes several changes. To some, these changes may cause ruptured disks and bone spurs, two of the main causes of sciatic nerve pain.
Genes — According to this study, genetic variations may play a role in intervertebral disc degeneration, one of the few conditions that counts sciatica as a symptom.
Injury — A previous lower back injury may put you at a higher risk of developing sciatic nerve pain.
Obesity — Other bodily changes, such as obesity, may trigger sciatica, as excess body weight can increase pressure to the spine and the sciatic nerves.
Occupation — Individuals with jobs that require lifting and sitting for long periods may be more susceptible to sciatica, as well.
Pregnancy — Expectant mothers develop sciatica not because of weight issues but because of the loosening of ligaments impacted by hormones, the baby’s position and weight. Loosened ligaments lead to an unstable spine, which may result in a slipped disk and pinched sciatic nerves.
Smoking — Nicotine can weaken the bones, damage the spinal tissues and may hasten the deterioration of vertebral disks. How is sciatica diagnosed?
Only a medical doctor can diagnose sciatica by performing various tests. A physician will likely gather your medical history, check your muscle strength and reflexes, as well as perform imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), electromyography (EMG), an X-ray and a CT scan.
What are the best natural treatments for sciatica?
Physical therapy, as well as performing stretches and exercises, can help strengthen your muscles, making it more resilient to back pain.
Anti-inflammatory herbal medications such as turmeric, garlic, arnica, Devil’s claw and St. John’s wort may help ease the symptoms of sciatica, but more studies are needed to validate their efficacy.
For immediate pain relief from sciatic nerve pain, go for hot and cold gel packs.
How does a heated gel pack help sciatica?
When applied to an affected area, heat therapy eases sciatica by:
- Reducing muscle tension and spasms that cause soreness.
- Expanding your blood vessels, encouraging blood, oxygen and nutrients to pass through the affected area, accelerating the healing process.
- Easing muscle tightness and sciatic nerve compression, resulting in improved mobility and range of motion.
Applying a warm pack on your rear pelvis provides quick and soothing therapeutic relief from sciatica.
How does a cold gel pack help sciatica?
Cold therapy is the most preferred self-care method for acute injuries and inflammations, including sciatica. These are the reasons why:
- It slows down the nerves that send pain signals to your brain.
- It acts as an analgesic, creating a numbing effect.
- It cools your muscle fibers, reducing muscle spasms that cause discomfort.
- It constricts blood vessels and decreases blood flow, preventing swelling and minimizing inflammation.
Is ice or heat best for sciatica?
At the onset of sciatic pain, it is recommended to use cold therapy for instant relief. For muscle stiffness that accompanies sciatic nerve pain, applying heat therapy may be more effective.
In most cases, though, alternating the use of hot and cold therapy is the best method. As sciatic pain is accompanied by inflammation, start with cold therapy. Once the pain and swelling subside, you may apply heat therapy to relax stiff back muscles and soothe them.
Perhaps the best part about alternating these treatments is you can choose which one works better for you.
What are the possible complications of sciatica?
If left untreated, sciatica may lead to long-term nerve damage, the signs of which are chronic tingling, weakness and loss of sensation in the affected leg. Incontinence may also develop, as the spine is connected to and directly impacts your bladder and bowel control.
Are there ways to prevent sciatica?
These methods can help protect your back against sciatic nerve pain:
Stay active — Performing stretches not only eases sciatic nerve pain, but it also strengthens your core muscles, which may help prevent sciatica from recurring.
By staying active, you can also maintain your weight, putting less pressure on your spine and nerves.
Maintain proper posture — Stand straight, put your chest forward, and balance your weight equally on both feet.
When sitting, your spine should be straight, with your butt touching the back of the chair. To maintain your body’s natural curve, consider placing a pillow on your back.
As you lift an object, keep your back straight as you bend your knees and hips down. Avoid twisting your back and don’t lift objects if you’ve had a history of back injury or surgery.
Move often — If you stand for long periods of time, rest one foot on a stool or small box frequently. If you have a desk job, make sure to stand up and walk short distances, at least once every hour, to relieve pressure off your back.
Eat well — Foods with rich anti-inflammatory properties, as well as those packed with vitamins B and magnesium that improve nerve health, may help you with your sciatica.
Most sciatic nerve pain cases are not serious and people recover fully from them after self-care methods and some rest. Natural approaches, such as the proper use of heat and cold therapy, work well in relieving pain, reducing inflammation and swelling, as well as in easing tight back muscles.
However, if these methods fail to ease your symptoms, do not hesitate to seek a doctor’s appointment.
Have you tried these natural treatments to manage your sciatica? Which ones did you find effective? Tell us all about it here.