Sciatica: the symptoms, causes and effective pain relief tips

Have you ever woken up with agonising lower back pain radiating into your leg? Is that nagging pain getting you down? Chances are if you are reading this, you are one of many who are suffering from sciatic pain. We know how difficult it is to get on with daily life when you are in pain, but don’t give up. Read on for some great tips to minimise pain and improve your recovery time. We want to help you get back to your old self.

Sciatica can be an extremely painful and life limiting condition. In 90 per cent of cases, sciatica is mostly short-term and resolves itself within six weeks. A small proportion of people are affected for a much longer period, and in rare cases the symptoms are a result of a serious underlying condition, which requires urgent medical intervention.

We’ve put together some useful information about sciatica and some pain-relieving techniques you can try at home. Doing all the right things you’ll improve your recovery time and reduce pain levels.

What is sciatica?

Sciatica is generally defined as pain or discomfort associated with the sciatic nerve, which runs down the buttocks and the back of the legs. Pain occurs when there is pressure on the nerve, restriction to it or the nerve is damaged in some way. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It starts in the lower back in the lumbar area (at L3) and runs down the back of the legs with portions branching out in the thighs, calves, feet and toes.

Sciatica describes the symptoms of an underlying condition, causing pain, tingling, numbness or weakness in the leg and/or buttocks. It’s not often that a particular event causes sciatica. It’s more likely that its symptoms develop over time.

What are the symptoms?

Most cases of sciatica include some or all of the following:

  • Strong, sometimes shooting, pain in the lower back/buttocks radiating downwards into the leg
  • Numbness and tingling in the lower limbs
  • Difficulty moving or exercising
  • Feeling stiff and unable to flex the feet (drawing toes upwards)
  • Pain when sleeping or lying down
  • Throbbing and inflammation around the thighs when standing for long periods

What are the causes of sciatica?

There are a number of underlying causes for sciatic pain. The 6 most common causes are:

  1. Lumbar herniated disc – this is the most common cause of sciatic pain. Also known as slipped disc, ruptured disc, bulging disc, protruding disc or pinched nerve.
  2. Degenerative disc disease – while some form of degeneration in back discs is part of the natural ageing process, it can irritate the nerve and cause sciatic symptoms in some people.
  3. Isthmic spondylolisthesis – this condition occurs when a small stress fracture allows one vertebral body to slip forward on another. The nerve can get pinched and cause sciatica.
  4. Lumbar spinal stenosis – a narrowing of the spinal canal. It’s due to natural ageing and is common in people older than 60. It’s a common sequelae of spinal arthritis.
  5. Piriformis syndrome – the sciatic nerve can get irritated as it runs under the piriformis muscle in the buttock, and cause sciatic pain.
  6. Sacroiliac joint dysfunction – irritation of the sacroiliac joint, located at the bottom of the spine, can cause sciatic-type pain.

Who gets sciatica?

Sciatica is rare in the under 20s, and most commonly develops in middle age. The condition is most likely to develop around the age of 40 or 50.

Is sciatica a serious condition?

In most cases sciatica is not a serious condition. However, while rare, certain sciatica symptoms can be caused by a serious underlying medical condition, which requires immediate medical and possibly surgical intervention.

Do I need to see my GP?

Though rare, because sciatica symptoms can be an indication of a serious underlying medical condition, it is best to see your GP if you are worried, symptoms are extreme or if symptoms persist for longer than a few weeks. Your GP will be able to rule out anything serious and advise you on managing the condition. If you have private health insurance broker you may be able to see your doctor more quickly. Also, check if your policy covers you for some of the treatment options.

What are the treatment options?

Because sciatica is caused by an underlying condition, effective treatment generally focuses on the cause. GPs will generally offer analgesics (painkillers), but under NICE guidelines can recommend other treatments.

The most effective treatment options for sciatica include:

What can I do to help the condition get better?

Often the first port of call for many is painkillers and rest. Unfortunately, rest is often the worst thing we can do for most types of back pain, and while painkillers bring obvious relief, they don’t address the cause.

As well as consulting specialist therapists for acupuncture or spinal manipulation, massage can also help with pain relief where muscles have become tight as a result of tension from the associated pain. Here are 3 simple self-help practices you can do at home.

  1. Hot and cold packs

Some people find heat packs help and some prefer cold packs, while others benefit from using both in alternation. Heat will bring blood to the area and increase inflammatory processes, which are essentially healing.  Heat can be useful when tight muscles are contributing to the pain, as heat will help these muscles to relax. If heat helps with the pain, a hot bath should also help.

Cold packs reduce inflammation by drawing blood away from the area you are using the pack on. While inflammation is part of a healing process, finding a balance in pain relief is also important. Use an ice pack wrapped in a tea towel on the lower spine for 10 minutes. Repeat hourly if it gives relief.

Alternatively, use a heat pack for 5-10 minutes followed by a cold pack for 5-10 minutes, then heat again. Repeat as required.

  1. Stretching

There are a number of stretching exercises you can do at home that will help to relieve nerve root compression. Try these exercises as recommended on the NHS website.

  1. Activity not rest

Sitting for long periods can make matters worse. If you are making it in to the office let your boss know you will need to take regular breaks from sitting. Get up and walk around at least once every hour for a minimum of 5 minutes. Perhaps there are some tasks you are able to do from a standing position. It’s a good opportunity to check the ergonomics of your workstation too.

If you are able to get out for a short walk a few times per day, you’ll find the pain will ease with gentle movement.

Give yourself the best chance to get better quickly. And don’t forget nutrient dense foods and good sleep are important too. We hope you are pain free very soon.

This article was written by Dakota Murphey.

Photo by sandiegopersonalinjuryattorney