The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body, running from the lower back down through the leg. There is one sciatic nerve on each side of the body, and when it becomes inflamed or irritated, it can lead to a lot of pain and discomfort.
Sciatica refers to a cluster of symptoms and is a description of where one is experiencing pain. It is fairly common, especially in those between the ages of 30 to 50 years old. In fact,that about 40 percent of adults in the United States will struggle with sciatica in their lifetime, and the symptoms may range from sharp shooting pain to numbness or tingling sensation in the legs and feet. Thankfully, there are many ways to help ease this discomfort.
In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about sciatica; its most common causes, what the symptoms feel like, ways you can prevent the pain from recurring, and the currently-available treatment options.
Causes of Sciatica
Sciatica can stem from various conditions ranging from disc herniation to wear-and-tear of the spine. These are the most prevalent reasons behind sciatic pain:
A herniated disc is the most prevalent reason for sciatica. It occurs when a spinal disc bulges out and presses on the sciatic nerve, causing pain. In some cases, the soft material within the disc will leak out and inflame the nerves’ roots.
Injuries of all shapes and sizes may lead to sciatica. Car accidents, falls, heavy lifting, and even activities involving twisting motions—such as golf, tennis, and/or football—can cause injury. Trauma to the leg or back may also result in sciatic pain due to compression or damage of the nerve.
The spine naturally changes over time. Discs dry out, cartilage wears down, and joints get stiffer with age. Conditions such as osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, and disc degeneration all leave the sciatic nerve roots vulnerable; in return, they are more prone to being compressed or irritated, leading to pain.
Many women suffer from sciatic pain during pregnancy. This may be because of weight gain, an increase in fluid retention, or the baby resting directly on the sciatic nerve. Fortunately, for most mothers-to-be, this is temporary and symptoms are likely to go away within a few months of giving birth.
Sitting or standing with poor posture for long periods places a lot of stress and fatigue on the lower back, sometimes to the point of irritating the sciatic nerve roots. To reduce the likelihood of this happening, check in with yourself several times throughout the day and ensure you’re sitting up straight and not hunched over.
Piriformis Syndrome is a neuromuscular disorder where the Piriformis muscle compresses the sciatic nerve; this leads to pain, tingling, or numbness. The sciatica is usually caused by overuse or injury of the muscle, and symptoms are most often present in the hips and legs.
Every person experiences the symptoms of sciatica differently. Typically, discomfort only affects one side of the body—either the right or the left—and this can cause one leg or side of the body to feel heavier than the other.
The most common symptoms of sciatica include a sudden shooting pain or persistent burning sensation in the lower back, buttocks, leg, and/or feet.
In severe cases, tingling, weakness, and/or numbness in the back of the leg may occur. Some people have reported bilateral symptoms on both sides of the body, too. If you do experience any of these symptoms, it is important to see a healthcare professional as soon as possible, as this may indicate a more serious health condition.
There are various treatment modalities available to help cope with the discomfort and manage sciatica pain. Below, we outline a few steps you can take to feel some relief:
- Exercise: Moving the body will help to keep inflammation at bay. Low impact and aerobic exercises such as swimming, walking, cycling, dancing are ideal for those with sciatica because they’re most gentle on the body.
- Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers: Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are the most widely used pain relievers to alleviate discomfort. We recommend asking your physician or trusted pharmacist about the best options for you.
- Heat Therapy: Applying a heat pack to the pelvic and/or lumbar area reduces stiffness and increases oxygen flow to the muscles, supporting the body’s natural healing process.
- Stretching: Maintaining the back’s flexibility and mobility through stretching can prevent stiffness. Instead of staying totally sedentary, continue stretching your leg(s) and back to keep the sciatic nerve moving. Ask your physician what types of stretches are suitable for you.
- Massage: For targeted relief, massages make a wonderful choice. Peaceful massages promote relaxation and get blood flowing to the affected area; plus, they reduce pressure on the sciatic nerve. Just be sure to inform your masseuse about your symptoms beforehand so they can treat you accordingly and prevent further aggravation of the sciatic nerve.
- Physical Therapy: Some individuals may go to a trained physical therapist to treat their sciatica. These medical professionals help restore function in the back by developing stretches and exercise routines to aid in rehabilitation.
- Surgery: In the event of disc herniation, surgery may be required.
It’s also important to note, some treatment options may not be considered safe during pregnancy. If you are an expectant mother, we recommend speaking with your doctor about how to safely find relief from sciatic pain.
How to Prevent Sciatica
Those who have been affected by sciatica may be wondering what they can do to prevent the pain from returning in the future. Here are the best preventative measures to protect the back and/or legs:
- Exercise Regularly: Working out consistently can help prevent sciatica by strengthening the muscles that support the spine. Strengthening your core through abdominal exercises may be particularly helpful; When this muscle group is weak, it may make you more prone to sciatica.
- Drink Lots of Water: The spinal discs are filled with fluid, so when we don’t drink enough water, they can become dehydrated. Consuming plenty of water helps keep the back functioning as effectively as it can.
- Maintain Proper Posture: While sitting, pull the shoulders down and back. If you work at a desk, take frequent breaks throughout the day to allow your back muscles and ligaments to stretch and move.
- Practice Good Body Mechanics: The way we move our bodies while standing and lifting is important. Take special care while making twisting motions or playing sports. When lifting, always bend at your hips and knees—never your waist. Wearing non-slip, closed-toe shoes with arch support can also help by supporting natural body alignment.
When to See a Doctor
There are a handful of scenarios that warrant a visit to the doctor and call for special treatment. They include:
- Neurological symptoms that become progressively worse with time, such as numbness, tingling, or weakness
- Symptoms present in both of the legs
- Bowel or bladder dysfunction
- Pain accompanied by a fever or loss of appetite
- Sciatica symptoms starting after a fall, trauma, or injury
How is sciatica diagnosed?
A physical exam is usually required to diagnose sciatica. During this examination, a healthcare provider assesses your muscle strength and reflexes. Those experiencing severe or chronic pain may be referred to a spine specialist, and they will conduct imaging tests such as MRIs, X-rays, or CT scans to determine the root cause of your discomfort and treat it accordingly.
To best assist your physician in making a proper diagnosis, it may be helpful to keep track of your symptoms, activities, and pain levels in a journal and take your notes to the appointment.
How long does sciatica last?
Pain duration varies from person-to-person. After seeking treatment, most people will stop experiencing symptoms within 4 to 6 weeks. In more serious cases, the pain may last up to 1 year.
What triggers sciatica?
Inflammation or damage to the body’s sciatic nerve is what causes sciatica. When irritated, pain, discomfort, numbness, and/or tingling can occur. Common triggers of sciatic pain may include improper lifting, sitting with poor posture, or a sedentary lifestyle.
Can sciatica be cured?
Sciatica is treatable, but not curable. There are several effective ways to manage the symptoms and prevent recurring episodes of pain, including physical therapy and targeted stretching. However, most people can kick their pain with lifestyle modifications and avoid complex treatments.
How do I relieve sciatic nerve pain?
Hot packs, massage, and/or over-the-counter pain relievers are effective ways to alleviate sciatic nerve pain. We suggest trying using different methods to see which one works best for you.
If the pain is interfering with your daily life, it may be time to seek medical attention and work with a healthcare provider to create a treatment plan for your specific needs.
Sciatica can be very painful; but for most people, it will heal on its own with a little rest and time.
By exercising regularly, drinking lots of water, and practicing good posture, you can greatly reduce the chances of sciatica happening again down the line. If you do begin to struggle with symptoms, we suggest staying active, stretching out the lower back and legs, and using hot compresses on the affected area. These methods should help relieve the discomfort until the sciatic nerve returns to a healthy, normal state.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.