What is sciatica?
Sciatica (pronounced sigh-at-ih-kah) refers to pain and discomfort associated with the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is composed of individual nerve roots and runs from the lower spine through the buttocks and down to the feet.
When someone is experiencing sciatic pain, the sciatic nerve is typically being compressed or “pinched” at some point in the body, usually in the lower spinal area.
The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body. It supplies sensation to the lower leg, the sole of the foot, the ankle, and the back of the thigh, so when it becomes compressed it can cause pain in many areas of the lower body. It’s important to understand that sciatica is not a medical diagnosis in and of itself – it is a symptom of an underlying medical condition. (from Spine-health.com).
In this article, we’ll cover common symptoms and causes of sciatica as well as a few natural treatments for sciatica pain relief.
Sciatica symptoms can range from being categorized as a mild nuisance to sharp, shooting pain and discomfort. Symptoms are most often temporary and vary greatly depending on the condition causing the sciatica.
More specifically, the term sciatica refers to symptoms that include:
- Pain from the lower back to the rear and down the back of the leg
- Pain usually only on one side of the lower body
- Burning or tingling sensation down the leg
- Shooting pain that may be worse when sneezing or coughing
- Numbness or weakness in the leg/foot
Do not ignore sciatica symptoms. Although relatively uncommon, prolonged compression of the sciatic nerve can lead to permanent nerve damage. See a doctor if symptoms are extreme, become worse, or last longer than a week.
Causes of Sciatica
Sciatica is caused by irritation of the root(s) of the lower lumbar and lumbosacral spine. (from WedMD.com) Beyond that, the two most common reasons for irritation are either bio mechanical in nature or the result of inflammatory biochemicals due to injury.
Sciatica symptoms can be caused by a number of things including:
- Lumbar spinal stenosis
- Lumbar lateral canal stenosis
- Degenerative disc disease
- Piriformis syndrome
- Isthmic spondylolisthesis
- Sacroiliac joint dysfunction
According to MayoClinic, Sciatica most commonly occurs when a bulging or herniated disc or on the spine compresses part of the nerve. This causes inflammation, pain and often some numbness in the affected leg.
Sciatica can also be caused by infection or changes to the body due to pregnancy. Because the causes of sciatica vary so greatly, it is extremely important to consult with a medical professional to determine the underlying condition of your symptoms.
Natural Sciatica Pain Relief
Heat and Cold Therapy
As with most pain, mild sciatica symptoms* can be treated with ice and heat. As a rule of thumb, try applying the ice or heat in intervals of 20 minutes every couple of hours. Whether the ice or the heat is first is really a matter of preference. Here’s more about how to use heat and cold therapy.
*Remember heat and cold therapy only treat the symptoms, not the cause. Thus, the benefits are typically short-lived.
Inactivity will often make sciatica symptoms worse, so engaging in a regular strengthening exercises to stabalize the lumar spine with the goal of enhancing core stability can help alleviate discomfort caused by sciatica*.
It’s worth noting that any stretching or exercise routine done incorrectly (or improperly timed) can result in more pain and discomfort, so make sure you’ve consulted with a licensed non-surgical spine specialist before engaging in this activity.
With that in mind, here are a few exercises to help relieve sciatica pain:
- McKenzie Method
Mckenziemdt.org defines the McKenzie Method of assessing and treating pain as a “well-defined algorithm that leads to the simple classification of spinal-related disorders[…]based on a consistent ‘cause and effect’ relationship between historical pain behavior as well as the pain response to repeated test movements, positions and activities during the assessment process.”
The McKenzie Method is essentially an algorithmic assessment paired with exercises intended to locate, centralize, and treat pain. Trained physician or therapist-prescribed Mckenzie exercises, specifically tailored to your needs, tend to work extremely well in centralizing sciatic pain. Click to learn more about the McKenzie Method.
- Prescribed exercise routine
A qualified non-surgical spine specialist (physician who specializes in non-surgical treatment of the spine and is usually certified by a board of physicians) will typically prescribe some type of stability exercise plan depending upon your diagnosis and stage of care.
This is extremely important due to the fact that doing the wrong exercises or doing beneficial exercises at the wrong stage of injury can actually worsen sciatica symptoms.
Limit sitting time
One of the number one things you can do for sciatic nerve pain is to reduce the amount of time spent sitting.
Sitting increases stress and pressure in the back, shoulders, arms, and legs. Long periods of sitting can add large amounts of pressure to the back muscles and spinal discs and can cause or worsen sciatica symptoms. Here’s a little more information on why sitting is wrecking your health and what you can start doing to help.
A study published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s website found that sitting for periods of at least 4 hours without changing position adversely affected disc height. Alternatively, disc height changes were not significant with brief positional changes and stretching every 15 minutes.
The study notes that fewer changes in disc height may correlate with an improvement in low back pain. This is mainly due to the fact that disc degeneration can aggravate the surrounding nerves, causing symptoms of pain.
To further elaborate on the effects of prolonged sitting, here is an excerpt from physioadvisor.com that illustrates the effects of poor sitting posture on pain and everall health:
“When standing or sitting slouched (see pictures below), the bend in your upper back and arch in your upper neck increases (figure 4). In addition your shoulders typically move forwards. This places considerable stretching force and increased load on the joints and muscles of your upper back and neck and will gradually cause an ache or pain if sustained for too long. When this occurs the condition is known as postural syndrome.”
Perhaps one of the most effective ways to limit sitting time is to invest in a standing workstation. The benefits of using a standing workstation are numerous, including the reduction of posture and sitting-related conditions and pain. Click here to see more standing workstations.
Chiropractic Spinal Manipulation
A trained chiropractor can perform manual manipulation of the spine in order to restore lost spinal segment mobility. Restoring mobility can reduce stress on the discs, which in turn will help reduce compression on the sciatic nerve and improve the health of the spinal segment. Maintaining that mobility is dependant upon the prescribed exercise plan.
Seeing a chiropractic physician is a quick and easy first step in overcoming or preventing sciatic symptoms.