It’s one thing to say that back pain is almost ubiquitous — and it’s another thing entirely to realize how many famous people have and do suffer from it. For instance, did you know that George Clooney had to undergo spinal fusion to manage discomfort stemming from an on-set injury he sustained while filming Syriana? Harrison Ford and Elizabeth Taylor also had to deal with chronic back pain. It isn’t just Hollywood types, either. Count sprinter Usain Bolt, golf star Tiger Woods, and running back Arian Foster as members of this all too common club. Even literary legend Jane Austen suffered significant back pain prior to her death.
One common form of back pain is sciatica, a twinge that pangs and radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve. Patients often reach out to us wondering if they can reduce sciatic nerve pain. Fortunately, you often can, and this guide will provide you with some safe guidelines that may help.
What is the Sciatic Nerve?
Sciatica derives its name from the sciatic nerve, the longest nerve in the human body. It splits off of the spinal column around the lower back and branches down through the buttocks to the thighs. An essential transmitter of nerve impulses, the sciatic nerve plays a vital role in facilitating balance, sensation, and locomotion for both legs.
As you have likely guessed from the nerve’s name, it is intimately involved with the condition known as sciatica. Indeed, sciatica usually occurs when something impinges upon the sciatic nerve, causing its own distinct form of pain. If you’ve experienced it, you know exactly how to describe it. Sufferers often compare it to a slow-burning discomfort or a sharp, stabbing agony, both of which tend to impact the lower back, buttocks, and/or posterior aspect of one leg and can occasionally involve numbness.
Common Causes of Sciatica
Even though sciatica is a distinct medical term, an astute patient will notice that physicians and other medical professionals don’t refer to it as a disorder, condition, or disease. There’s a very simple reason for that: It isn’t any of those things. Rather, experts refer to sciatica as a symptom or (in the words of WebMD) as “a common type of pain.” Think of it like lumbago, a once-common term that has fallen out of favor due to its very general description of lower-back pain. The difference between lumbago and sciatica is that the latter describes a much more specific symptom.
In one sense, sciatica tells us something very basic, namely that the sciatic nerve is under pressure. However, determining what exactly is causing that pressure is another matter altogether. While spinal disc herniation is usually the culprit, any number of underlying conditions may lead to sciatica, including:
- Spinal Stenosis
- Degenerative Disc Disease
- Physical Trauma
- Muscle Spasms
- Rheumatism / Rheumatoid Arthritis
As you can see, many different conditions can lead to sciatica, and you’ll want to know exactly what’s causing your discomfort if your pain persists.
How Do You Get Rid of Sciatic Nerve Pain
People in the midst of managing their sciatica often find themselves asking how to cure sciatica permanently — and right now. Here’s good news: Information published by the National Institutes of Health stated, “Most cases of sciatica resolve in less than 4 to 6 weeks with no long-term complications even if no medical therapy is sought” (emphasis added). It’s understandable, though, that most people don’t want to sit on their hands and simply wait to feel better. In this section, we’ll provide some relatively simple ways that might provide you with a little relief.
First, we’ll discuss several home remedies, such as:
- Alternating applications of cold or heat to the places that pain you (make sure that the temperature isn’t too hot or cold and that you place a cloth between the source and your skin)
- Eating foods that decrease inflammation, such as turmeric, green and black tea, fish, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and selections high in fiber
- Stopping smoking
- Supplementing with appropriate doses of zinc, magnesium, fish oil, selenium, and vitamins D, E, B6, and B12
- Getting a massage
- Sleeping eight or more hours per night
Additionally, a number of over the counter medications can help you manage your pain. These include:
Finally, exercising and stretching may decrease your pain and speed recovery. (You may want to discuss such a regime with your doctor first. Can stretching make sciatica worse? Sometimes, yes, and we’ll discuss that more in the next section.) Some of these activities are:
- Practicing proper posture
- Massaging painful muscles with your thumbs, your knuckles, or tennis balls stuffed in a sock and pressed up against a firm surface
- Performing McKenzie exercises
- Engaging in yoga sequences that include poses such as cat and cow, half moon, upward dog/cobra, locust, side plank, reclining pigeon pose, and bridge
Exercises to Avoid When you Have Sciatica
Not every sort of exertion will work equally well to relieve your sciatica. In fact, there are some sciatica exercises to avoid. These specific sorts of movements might put pressure on the sciatic nerve or simply irritate it, increasing and prolonging your pain. They include:
- Exercises where you lift both legs while tightening the muscles of your trunk
- Exercises requiring you to move your leg or legs in a circular motion
- Exercises such as bent-over rows which can injure spinal discs if you allow your back to round while performing repetitions
- Exercises requiring twisting motions of the low back
How to Prevent Future Sciatic Nerve Pain
Despite the many conditions or illnesses that can lead to sciatica, this specific type of pain always originates from pressure placed on the nerve — and relieving that pressure is the best way to ensure that sciatic nerve pain doesn’t return in the future. Unfortunately, you can only properly address some conditions involving damaged discs or a narrowing spinal column with surgery. But many other back issues respond well to the home remedies and exercises mentioned above. In general, you will experience less sciatic nerve pain if you lose excess weight, stop smoking, improve your core and back strength, and increase your hip and hamstring flexibility. With those goals in mind, consider beginning training at a local gym or buying a membership at your local pilates or yoga studio.
Signs You Need to See a Doctor for Sciatica
Sometimes, sciatica isn’t just an irritation. It may indicate a serious problem, particularly if it presents with certain other troubling symptoms. If your pain includes the following, you should call emergency services:
- Sudden numbness
- Loss of bowel control
- Loss of bladder control
- Inability to move your legs
- Extreme pain not controlled by pain medication
Additionally, you should see a qualified physician if your pain continues to increase, you suffer from a pulsating sensation, your toes or feet feel cold, or you experience a strong urge to scratch parts of your leg that pain you.
If you’re concerned about your sciatica pain, contact The Spine Center at (847) 628-8147. With over five decades of combined experience and a commitment to patient education, we want to help you achieve maximal functionality and realize relief from pain as soon as possible.