Last Updated October 11th, 2019
What is sciatica pain?
Considered as the longest nerve, it runs from the spine all the way through the back of the thigh and down to the foot. The main purpose of this nerve is to connect the spinal cord and the foot muscles. Many people suffer from lower back pain and this may be due to the sciatic nerve causing the pain. There are several factors that are involved in the contribution of sciatic nerve pain.
Generally, when the sciatic nerve is compressed, it causes this excruciating pain. Sciatic nerve pain is also referred to as sciatica. General back pain is different from sciatica. Since the sciatic nerve controls different muscles in the leg, the back pain is usually accompanied by pain radiating to both thighs and foot. It has been estimated that around 40% of people around the world would experience sciatica at least once in their lifetime.
Facts on sciatica
- It is not a medical condition, but a symptom.
- It is the longest nerve in the human body.
- Sciatica pain accounts for 5% of lower back pain visits to the emergency room.
- It has been estimated that around 30% of sciatica pain resolve without treatment.
- It affects more men than women.
- Chronic sciatica pain becomes less responsive to treatment.
Causes of sciatica
Sciatica is generally caused due to a herniated disk or slipped disk. A herniated disk is experienced when the disk moves out of place causing compression on the sciatic nerve. Sciatica may be caused due to several other factors and include:
Lumbar spinal stenosis
This condition is caused due to the narrowing of the spinal cord in the lower back.
This occurs when the disk slips forward over the vertebra.
Abnormal growth of tumors in the spine may lead to pressure created on the root of the sciatic nerve causing compression.
Cauda equina syndrome
This is considered to be a rare condition that affects the nerves in the lower part of the spinal cord. It usually requires immediate medical attention.
Infection and injury
An infection or injury to the spinal cord also could trigger sciatica.
Sciatica never comes with a warning. You could wake up one day with a nagging back pain that radiates down the thigh all the way down to the foot and just happens instantaneously. It is a pain that would not budge no matter what you try. It should be noted that sciatica can affect both who are active as well as who follow a sedentary lifestyle.
The most common sciatica symptoms include:
- Sharp shooting pain in the limbs and lower back that radiates down the thighs and foot.
- May be associated with numbness and tingling in the foot.
- Difficulty in doing daily activities.
- Stiffness of the body associated with problems flexing the feet.
- Severe pain that could wake you up from sleep.
- Inflammation around the thighs or lower back due to long periods of sitting or standing.
The symptoms of sciatica can last up to six weeks and are usually associated with excruciating pain. The symptoms may subside on its own but may creep up anytime soon when least expected. A chronic condition would require a visit to the doctor for treatment as it is not advisable to wait for the pain to subside. If the pain continues for more than six weeks, it is an indication that the pain is going to stay for a long time and may not clear up without treatment. Few people may recover when the inflammation of the tissue subsides and releases the pressure from the sciatic nerve.
There are situations where a person may not experience any pain even if the nerve is pinched. It has been found that around 20% of people who were affected with bulging spinal disk did not notice any pain even when the disk was moved to the surrounding tissue. On the other hand, there are cases where patients have not noticed any relief even after trying all possible measures. Numbness and tingling in the foot may be an indication that the symptoms are long lasting and would require immediate medical attention and even surgery.
Treatments for Sciatic Nerve Pain
Simple back pain can be treated at home, but sciatica needs specific treatment approach. It is important to know what is causing the anatomical abnormality. No doubt certain sciatic pain can be treated at home with NSAIDs, but there is always a possibility that the pain can recur. Seeing a professional is never a bad idea in this situation. Your doctor would prescribe you some pain relievers to subside the pain, but a more practical approach of treating it naturally should be considered due to the side effects associated with drugs. Some of the natural treatments for sciatica are discussed below.
There are numerous types of herniated disks that cause severe pain as compared to others. Studies have claimed that prolapsed disk bulges are comparatively less severe. Since the outermost layer of the disk is intact, the severity is limited.
On the other hand extrusion of the disk is considered to be more painful as they cause damage to the outer layer of the disk. As the condition progresses, the spinal tissue may eventually separate from the disk. It is important to find out the cause of the problem in order to proceed with appropriate treatment approach.
A chiropractor can be helpful in diagnosing the issue during a physical exam. With the help of x-rays and MRI scans, the chiropractor can investigate the spine and assess the damage caused to it. Once the diagnosis is made, a chiropractor can realign the spinal disks and prevent protrusion.
This would greatly help reduce the pain level and treat the underlying source of pain. Studies have claimed that people who have received spinal adjustments from a chiropractor experienced less local pain and for a lesser period of time as compared to others who have not received spinal adjustments.
Yoga and Stretching
It has been noted that certain movements such as shortening of the spine by moving the knee towards the chest, rising up the leg, as well as squatting may aggravate sciatic pain.
It has been found that stretching exercises and yoga help maintain posture and is helpful in reducing stiffness and inflammation. It has been scientifically proven that yoga is safe and also effective in reducing sciatic nerve pain. Postures in yoga target the back by building strength to the spine as well as relaxing any stiff muscles. Reclining pigeon pose is one of the main postures that target the piriformis muscle. This is helpful in preventing inflammation and pressure against the sciatic nerve.
Acupuncture and Massage Therapy
Many should be aware of the term acupuncture. It is a Chinese medicine practice that involves treatment with tiny needles. It is believed that by applying tiny needles at certain pressure points, there is a better flow of natural energy through the body and maintain better health.
These needles are basically pain-free and have also been approved by the FDA as a treatment for back pain. It has also been beneficial in reducing many types of chronic pain including sciatica. On the other hand, massage therapy and rolfing have proven to be beneficial in reducing sciatica pain. Massage therapy reduces stiffness and helps with muscle relaxation whereas rolfing concentrates on deep tissue relaxation.
Both massage and rolfing are also helpful in releasing endorphins which are chemicals that are similar to pain relievers.
Ambulation and changing positions frequently
Sitting or standing for extended periods of time such as watching television for long hours as well as standing at the same position for a long period can aggravate symptoms. Sciatica pain related to bulging disk requires regular gentle movements to relieve the inflammation by loosening the targeted area. As discussed earlier, stretching and yoga can be beneficial for people suffering from chronic sciatica pain.
It is quite common for sciatica pain to strike when it is least expected. You can choose to practice some stretching exercises at home or office to reduce the tension and relieve inflammation. You can choose to have alternating periods of sitting and lying down accompanied by walking a few steps. Try to be more active even while at home and never stay in the same position for extended periods of time.
Try heating pads
One of the best and cheapest ways to relieve pain is by using heating pads. Heating pads come in various sizes, so it is easy to carry even when traveling. The heating pad could be set at low or medium setting and used for 15 to 20 minutes at regular intervals when you are at home or at the office. Single-use heat wraps could be tried that can last for several hours.
You could also choose a reusable heating pad that works with water. If you are in the comfort of your home, you could try a warm bath as heat helps loosen stiff muscles. Researchers have claimed that not only heat but icing the area too could help relieve sciatica pain. It is advised to alternate heat and ice for 15 to 20 minutes every couple of hours. If the pain is still persistent and there is no reduction in the intensity, your doctor would suggest you take an over-the-counter pain reliever.
It has been found that old age, obesity, smoking, regular driving, people who are tall, as well as high mental stress are some of the risk factors associated with sciatica pain. It has been observed that all these factors also play an important role in increasing the level of inflammation. Inflammation makes it much more difficult to treat sciatica pain. It becomes important to first treat inflammation in order to reduce the symptoms of sciatica.
It is recommended to try adding some anti-inflammatory foods in your diet as well as do regular exercise and get a good night’s sleep of about 7-8 hours. As the inflammation reduces, it becomes much easier to treat sciatica by other means.
Back pain is something that is common in everyone’s medical history. You will have to deal with it one or the other day in your life. Sciatic nerve pain is becoming quite common due to the lifestyle we follow in this modern era.
Prevention seems to be the best cure, as it can be avoided or at least limited to some extent. There are several nonsurgical methods to deal with sciatica which has been discussed in detail. Applying these methods is definitely going to help you on long-term and save some money and time from frequent emergency room visits.
It should be noted that diet too plays an important role in reducing sciatic nerve pain. Consuming anti-inflammatory foods helps you to cope with several chronic pains including sciatica. Since sciatica is not simple back pain, you should never take it lightly.
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