Sciatica is the term used to describe pain caused by an irritation of the sciatic nerve. Anything that irritates the sciatic nerve causes pain which ranges from mild to severe. Sciatica is not classed as medical condition but a symptom.
Back pain is often mistaken for sciatic pain but as the sciatic nerve is the largest in the human body, the pain usually extends from the lower back to the rear of the thigh and down the entire length of the leg. Sciatic pain may only affect one part of the body but is often severe and debilitating.
The cause of sciatic pain may be assessed by a surgeon who will go over the benefits and risks of surgery before suggesting a suitable surgical option. Physical therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy are often recommended and treatment of chronic sciatica will involve a combination of medical treatment and self care methods you can practice at home.
You may have woken up with an agonizing pain that runs from your upper thigh all the way down your legs to your feet. Or maybe have been suffering chronic pain in the lower back that spreads to the buttocks and your upper thigh. Chances are that sciatic nerve pain, or sciatica, is causing that painful throbbing in your lower back and leg muscles.
Sciatic nerve pain can be accompanied by a burning or tingling feeling down the leg, unbearable pain that makes it difficult for you to stand up or sit down and a numbness and weakness in the affected leg all the way down to even your toes. Sciatic pain is a symptom of many medical conditions like a spinal injury or infection, a degenerative spinal disc disease, spinal stenosis or even pregnancy. Recent figures estimate that almost 10 percent of the US population has suffered from sciatic pain.
Many people turn to traditional treatments for sciatica like over the counter painkillers, steroid injections and when all else fails surgery. Most conventional treatments will only ease the pain temporarily and many of the injections you may have will cause serious side effects. At home remedies aim to both help ease the pain and improve your spinal health by reducing the inflammation and pressure on your sciatic nerve and in most cases the problem goes away after a short time (normally about six weeks).
What Causes Sciatica?
At its simplest level sciatic nerve pain is caused when certain nerves in the lower spine become pinched along the sciatic nerve. Sciatica is a symptom of many different medical conditions but it’s estimated that 90 percent of all cases are caused by a herniated or slipped disk. Sciatica is normally caused by the compression of the nerve in the lower spine.
The spinal column in your body consists of three main parts; the vertebrae bones, nerves and discs. Individual vertebrae protect the underlying nerves with discs made of cartilage (a resilient material) cushioning between each bone and giving the spine it’s flexibility. When a disc becomes herniated it’s pushed out of place and puts pressure on or traps the sciatic nerve.
Other potential causes of sciatica include a narrowing of the spinal cord in the lower back known as lumbar spinal stenosis, a disk slipping forward over a lower vertebra called spondylolisthesis, tumors in the spine that compress the sciatic nerve and infection or injury within the spine. A more serious but very rare condition known as cauda equina syndrome can also affect the nerves, in particular the sciatic nerve, in the lower parts of the spine and will require immediate medical attention.
What Puts Somebody More at Risk of Sciatic Nerve Pain?
Age is the most common risk factor for sciatica with people in their 30s and 40s being more prone to developing the problem. Your profession may put you at risk of sciatica especially jobs that require lifting heavy loads for extended periods of time. And a sedentary lifestyle, sitting for too long or being less physically active will also put you at a higher risk of developing sciatica than people who have active lifestyles.
Being pregnant was thought to increase the risk of sciatica with 50 to 80 percent of women exhibiting sciatica-like symptoms of back pain during pregnancy. Pregnancy produces hormones, like relaxin, that cause ligaments to loosen and stretch are the more likely cause of back pain than sciatica. A herniated disk causing sciatica is no more likely in pregnancy than not being pregnant.
Lifestyle factors like obesity will increase the stress on your spine with excess body weight adding to changes in the spinal column that triggers sciatic nerve pain. Diabetes, another side effect of obesity, affects the way your body makes use of blood sugar and increases the risk of nerve damage. For people who generally lead an unhealthy lifestyle, by eating a poor diet, not getting enough sleep or dealing with excess stress, the spinal discs will age at a quicker rate which may lead to sciatic nerve problems.
Diagnosis of Sciatica
The most common symptoms of sciatica include a strong, sometimes shooting pain along the sciatic nerve, the largest nerve in your body remember, anywhere from the lower back, to your buttocks and down either leg. This can also cause a numbness in the leg along the nerve and pins and needles or a tingling sensation in the feet and toes. It may be difficult to exercise or move with a feeling of stiffness and unable to move or flex the feet, pain when sleeping and often a throbbing or inflammation when sitting or standing for long periods of time.
Due to its similarity to arthritis and other muscle or joint pains, diagnosing sciatica can be difficult. A commonly used diagnostic test is the Lasègue’s sign where the leg is raised and the test considered positive if pain in the sciatic nerve is reproduced when flexing the leg between 30 and 70 degrees. Although this test is positive in about 90 percent of patients with sciatica, approximately 75 percent of people who also get a positive result in this test don’t have sciatica. This short clip shows the Lasègue’s sign being performed by a physician:
Other tests including use of imaging like X-Rays, CT or MRI scans to help with diagnosing the herniation of lumbar discs.
Medical Treatment Vs at-Home or Natural Treatments
Different treatments will depend on the cause of the sciatica and the severity of it. Acute sciatica tends to last for shorter period and many doctors choose to use medications like anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxers or steroid injections to treat the pain. Most acute cases of sciatica will disappear after six weeks with acute sciatica known to respond well to alternative treatments and physical exercises too.
Chronic cases of sciatica, when symptoms for three months or longer, may involve a combination of selfcare remedies and medical treatments but sometimes can require surgery too. A lumbar laminectomy is one surgical option which aims to widen the spinal cord in the lower back to reduce the pressure on nerves. Another option is the partial or entire removal of a herniated disk known as a discectomy.
Although the first temptation is to reach for that bottle of painkillers or request surgery, research has found that much less invasive ways of treating sciatic pain like chiropractic spinal adjustments can be just as effective. A 2010 study by the Journal of Manipulative Physiological Practices found nearly 60 percent of patients, for whom conventional methods had failed them, actually benefited when they tried spinal manipulation, with similar effects to surgery.
Let’s take a look at some of the remedies you can try at home to relieve the pain of sciatica.
Hot or Cold Compresses
One of the simplest methods to relieve sciatic nerve pain uses a hot or cold compress, or even a combination of the two. Treatment with heat relaxes tense muscles that may be compressing the sciatic nerve. A cold compress will reduce swelling around the sciatic nerve and numb the pain too.
Alternating between the hot and cold will often give best results in helping to relieve the sciatic pain and the inflammation that may be causing it, starting with the hot compress and finishing with the cold compress. A moist heat like a steamed towel is generally more effective when using heat. A soak in a hot bath can have similar effects on sciatic pain as a compress as it’ll help relax the muscles but may not focus on the affected area as much, so relief will be more temporary.
Start by placing a hot or cold compress on the area affected by the pain, usually the lower back is easiest, and leave on for 15 to 20 minutes. Repeat every few hours until you feel relief. This can be done on a daily basis until the sciatic pain disappears, normally in four to six weeks, and will make life much more bearable. If you have circulation problems you should avoid using a cold compress.
Turmeric has many medicinal uses and its anti-inflammatory properties make it an effective natural remedy for sciatica. Curumin, a compound found in turmeric, helps to reduce both nerve pain and inflammation. People taking blood thinner or diabetes medications should consult with a doctor before trying this method to avoid any interactions and patients with gallstones should avoid using turmeric completely.
Taking turmeric supplements of 250 to 500 milligrams, three times a day for several weeks is one option. You could also add one teaspoon of turmeric to a cup of milk, maybe adding a cinnamon stick for flavor and bring to the boil. Sweeten the drink with honey and drink once or twice a day until you feel an improvement in the pain.
Capsaicin cream or ointment is readily available in most pharmacies or health supplies shops and you should try to buy a product containing 0.025 to 0.075 percent capsaicin. An ingredient of cayenne pepper, capsaicin works as a natural pain reliever by helping to deplete levels of the neurotransmitter, known as substance P, which transports the body’s pain signals.
Apply the formula to the affected area up to four times a day, for a period of at least one week or until the pain subsides. You may feel a burning sensation initially like you’ve rubbed a chili pepper across your skin but this will die down and it may even distract from the sciatic pain. Do not use on broken skin, where capsaicin will cause major irritation.
The root of valerian has been commonly used as a relaxant and sometimes as a natural sleeping aid. Valerian also relieves chronic nerve pain and is especially good for sciatic pains caused by a muscle spasm. Volatile oils contained in the herb will help relax the muscles while easing tension.
Again this can be taken as a supplement with 150 milligrams of valerian root supplement three times a day recommended for several weeks, or taken as a hot drink. As with any supplements you intend to start taking on a regular basis, you should consult your doctor first. For a simple valerian tea, take one teaspoon of dried valerian root and steep in hot water for 10 minutes before drinking. Enjoy the tea several times a week for a few weeks or until you feel the effects of the valerian.
Massage is something you can call somebody in to your home for or even a willing partner who can help ease your pain. Massage therapy will relieve sciatic pain and heal the body too, especially if the sciatica is the result of a muscle spasm. Additionally, massage relieves tension, stimulates your circulation and can increase your range of motion which may have been reduced by the sciatica pain in your buttocks or leg muscles.
St John’s wort has anti-inflammatory properties and massaging the affected area with this oil two or three times a day will help alleviate sciatic pain and inflammation. Another good pain-relieving massage oil is to combine three tablespoons of nutmeg powder with one cup of sesame oil and heat the mixture, allowing it to cool down to a comfortable warm before massaging into the lower spine area a few times a day for several weeks.
Trigger-point massage therapy can gently focus those trigger points in the glutes and thighs often associated with lower back sciatic pain. A holistic massage therapy known as rolfing can significantly improve your spine health and relieve pain by breaking bad patterns of muscle strain and enable the back to properly realign itself. Additionally, massage tends to encourage the body to release more endorphins; the body’s natural feel good chemicals which act as painkillers.
Yoga for Spinal Health
When suffering from sciatic pain, the last thing on your mind is probably going to be sitting cross legged and meditating. Positions that involve scrunching up or shortening the spine like squatting, bringing your knees to your chest or simply raising the legs can add to your pain. But there are many yoga poses that will lengthen the spine and improve your posture while reducing inflammation, pain and stiffness.
Yoga has been shown to be a safe and effective treatment for people who suffer from sciatica even when compared with normal medical treatments. The best yoga techniques for preventing sciatic pain focus on building the strength of your back and relaxing stiffer areas. Patients who have surgery for sciatic pain are often recommended exercises to prevent lower back pain and strengthen the core as part of their rehabilitation. The following video looks at a 15-minute yoga routine that can significantly prevent that sciatic nerve pain while improving your general posture:
Exercises and Stretching
When you have debilitating sciatic pains, the idea of exercise probably seems even less appealing than yoga. We’re not talking about running a marathon or doing a P90 workout but physical exercise is recommended by many doctors as a selfcare remedy for sciatica. Just sitting for many hours, whether at a desk at work or watching TV in your leisure time will make things worse for bulging discs and back pain.
Introducing specific stretches or light isometric exercise to your daily routine a few days after your sciatic flares up can help strengthen the abdominal and back muscles which can speed up your recovery. You could start by alternating periods of lying down with short walks, trying to take more steps daily and working on lengthening your spine with exercises when at home.
A knee to chest stretch will help reduce the irritation of the sciatic nerve while improving the flexibility of your lower back. Other exercises like spinal rolling, knees rocking, floor twists, back extensions and sciatic-mobilizing stretches may help reduce any sciatica and lower back pain. Talking to your doctor often helps you to choose the right exercise plan for your particular case. The following video looks at three of the best exercises for sciatica and pinched nerves.
White Willow Bark
White willow bark is used to offer long-lasting pain relief for sciatic pain. Phenolic glycosides along with salicin found in this supplement will provide anti-inflammatory and analgesic benefits to your spinal nerves. A white willow bark supplement of 120 or 240 milligrams daily for several weeks will help prevent the pain but you should consult a doctor before taking the supplements.
Fenugreek has been used to soothe rheumatoid arthritis and gout pains but due to its anti-inflammatory properties can also be used to reduce pain from sciatica. Prepare a poultice by grinding a handful of fenugreek seeds and boiling with just enough milk to make a mushy paste. Apply the poultice to the area of pain and leave on for a few hours before rinsing off. Repeat daily until you feel relief from the pain and then as required.
Acupuncture for Sciatica
The first of two methods we’re looking at which can be performed at home but aren’t really do it yourself remedies is acupuncture. Acupuncture is an effective natural relief from sciatica pain which relaxes your muscles and helps the body heal. You should always have acupuncture therapy performed by a skilled experienced acupuncturist, not just let anybody stick a few needles in you (I’m sure you wouldn’t anyway!).
Although acupuncture cannot fix the structural issues at the lower back which are causing the sciatica, it’s an effective side effect free way of relieving the pain. Stimulating certain acupuncture points in turn stimulates the central nervous system. The central nervous system then triggers the release of our body’s natural painkillers, endorphins and enkephalins, increases the blood flow to the affected area and relaxes the muscles in the surrounding areas.
The Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine published a study in 2009 that found acupuncture with heated needles helped to reduce the pain of sciatica. Over half the participants of the study, 17 out of 30, reported complete relief from the sciatica after the acupuncture treatments. Acupuncture is even covered by many health insurance policies from companies including Aetna, Cigna, or BCBS/CareFirst.
The second at-home method which normally requires a professional is the process of spinal manipulation, also known as chiropractic adjustment. Many of the yoga poses and stretching exercises we’ve looked at are an attempt to manipulate the spine and heal it, just changing your posture could even be classed a method of spinal manipulation. But sometimes the skills of professional chiropractor are needed for the effective treatment of back and sciatic pain, with many of the techniques they use being more harmful than helpful if performed by somebody who’s inexperienced.
Sciatica is often diagnosed in a physical examination by a chiropractor who’ll then work with you to realign your spinal discs and stop them from protruding into the nerve canal, targeting the actual source of your pain. Techniques that normally use short thrusts will alleviate the nerve irritability causing the inflammation and the pain of sciatica. The chiropractor will also recommend less forceful moves you can perform at home to adjust or retrain your spine as part of the program.
A study was published in the Official Journal of the North American Spine Society which looked at the cases of 102 adults who suffered sciatic nerve pain. The participants who received spinal manipulation therapies experienced reduced local pain, fewer days with pain and fewer cases of moderate or severe pain than those who didn’t receive any chiropractic adjustments.
Essential oils like ginger or peppermint can be mixed with a carrier oil of your choice and applied to the affected area to reduce the pain and inflammation associated with sciatic pain. Applying the mixture twice daily will be effective in treating sciatica and it’s symptoms.
Ginger oil is extracted from the flowering ginger plant and is known for soothing qualities which helps in relieving sciatic nerve pain. Ginger also contains a compound called -gingerol which has been shown to have anesthetic and anti-inflammatory qualities that help combat the symptoms of sciatica.
Peppermint oil has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties and is widely used as a pain reliever. For sciatic pain sufferers, peppermint oil will reduce pain and inflammation and speed up your recovery.
You can’t look at home remedies without mentioning Aloe vera, this plant is really good for absolutely everything. This time you’re going to drink it though, but you can also apply a thin layer on the affected area if you wish to soothe the surrounding muscles. Try consuming a fourth of a glass daily to help cure pain and heal the body.
Polysaccharides and anti-inflammatory compounds that are present in Aloe vera give it healing properties. Various studies that have looked at using Aloe vera to treat sciatic nerve pain have found the presence of certain ethanolic extracts make it a potential cure for sciatic nerve pain.
Reducing the Inflammation Can Be Key to Sciatica Pain Relief
Experts estimate that approximately five to 10 percent of all back pain is caused by sciatica. These figures vary from one person to another with personal and occupational factors that increase the likelihood of developing sciatica. These include age, above average height, stress levels, obesity, prolonged sitting, smoking and occupational hazards like heavy lifting or activities that expose you to prolonged periods of a vibrating motion like truck driving.
All the above factors will potentially increase the inflammation which triggers sciatic pain and makes it more severe while also making it difficult for any injury to heal. Although quitting your job to find one that doesn’t increase your risk of back injury isn’t always possible there are many healthy lifestyle changes you can make that’ll reduce the pain of sciatica and prevent or even eliminate repeated attacks of sciatica pain.
Smoking and many recreational drugs are known to increase the aging process of the discs in your spinal column while following a diet that is rich in nutrients will promote healing. Vitamins B12, C and D will help reduce inflammation while consuming 1000 milligrams of magnesium and 2000 milligrams of calcium daily is shown to reduce the pressure on your nerves. Adding more foods like citrus fruits, milk, cheese, green vegetables and nuts is an alternative to taking supplements.
Other Tips to Prevent Sciatic Nerve Pain
Although many of the home remedies we’ve looked at above will help reduce the pain of sciatica, there are preventative measures that also make your treatment more effective and decrease the frequency, if not eliminate, the repetition of sciatic nerve pain. Most of these concentrate on protecting or improving the health of your spine.
Trying not to make sudden movements, adopting a better posture when sitting to reduce pressure on the lower back and practicing good lifting techniques by keeping your back straight and bending the knees will all help to prevent any further disc herniation or pinching of the sciatic nerve. Sleeping on a mattress that gives you support but without being too firm helps keep your spine aligned and following a healthy sleep pattern makes the healing process quicker.
Getting regular exercise, but not too intense, with exercises that strengthen the back and core muscles will help keep your spine healthier and promote a slower aging process to the all important discs that cushion your vertebrae bones protecting the sciatic nerve. Just being more active in general and avoiding prolonged periods of standing or sitting will relieve the pressure on your spine and improve your general health too.
The Outlook for Sciatic Nerve Pain
Back pain can happen to anyone at anytime in their lives and often takes the form of sciatic nerve pain. In most cases the best treatment is to stretch and move your back muscles to heal and further prevent the symptoms. With the home remedies for sciatica we’ve looked at you can easily deal with the many symptoms and heal the body too.
By making simple lifestyle changes and getting moving you can stop sciatica symptoms from becoming a chronic stressful problem in your life. However, if you find periods of sciatic nerve pain are lasting longer or occurring more frequently it’s always advisable to see your physician or a chiropractor who can recommend a more permanent solution in most cases.
This article is intended for informational purposes only. If you have any questions or are considering any recommendations, please consult your health practitioner.