Sciatica is a common type of pain that affects the sciatic nerve. It is a large nerve that extends from the lower back down the back of both legs.
About 4 out of every ten people suffer from sciatica at some point in their life. Anything that puts pressure on the sciatic nerve or irritates it can cause pain that shoots down the back of one buttock or thigh. There are different types and levels of sciatica pain. Individuals with sciatica can feel mild to sharp pain, burning sensation, numbness, tingling, weakness, or severe discomfort.
Sciatica pain is commonly caused by prolonged sitting, standing, sneezing, coughing, twisting, straining, and lifting. There are also different ranges of treatment for sciatic pain.
What Causes Sciatica to Flare Up?
Sciatica is the largest nerve in the body, which can cause debilitating pain once it gets irritated or some pressure put into it. Sciatic pain has a diverse pain sensation, which includes radiating or tingling pain in the back of the hips and glutes, extending all the way down to the leg and foot. Know the causes of why sciatica flares up and how you can treat it can help you stay pain-free.
Sometimes sciatica pain can be a symptom of an underlying serious problem. The cause can be usually treated with pain relieves, anti-swelling medications, and can be corrected through lifestyle changes. Some of the causes are:
- Sitting for long periods
- Obesity and weight gain
- Lifting or carrying heavy objects with the wrong form
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Improper posture when doing exercise of weight lifting
- Awkward sleeping position on a too-soft mattress
- Wearing inappropriate shoes for a particular activity or spending long hours in high heels
If your pain worsens or stays for more than a few weeks, get some medical attention. It can be a symptom of a serious medical condition. Through doing some tests like X-ray, CT scan, or MRI, your doctor can find if there is an underlying medical cause. Here are some of the common root causes of sciatic nerve pain.
Lumbar Spinal Stenosis
One of the common causes of sciatica is spinal stenosis, where the spinal bone channel that covers the spinal cord and nerves becomes narrow. Lumbar stenosis occurs in the nerves situated in the lower back. Although some people are born with a congenital spinal canal issue, other people get spinal degeneration over time. When the spinal bone channel narrows, the nerve roots are compressed, which results in tingling, weakness, numbness, and pain. The treatments for stenosis include exercise, medication, and epidural injections.
A herniated disc is also known as a bulging disc. It occurs when the soft disc, found between the vertebrae that act as a cushion, pushes through a crack in the exterior casing. This can irritate the nerves leading to sciatic pain. Treatment for herniated discs is physical therapy, medication, or surgery.
Degenerative Disc Disease
As people age, the discs between the vertebrae lose the cushioning, resulting in the spines losing their flexibility caused by everyday life's wear and tear. The areas of the spine that often move endure more stress and most prone to degenerative disc disease. Degeneration causes sciatic nerve irritation, usually on the lumbar. Degenerative disc disease can be treated with medications, such as anti-inflammatory medicines, NSAIDS, lower back exercises, and proper ergonomics and posture.
Spondylolisthesis is a condition where the spinal vertebra moves forward onto the bone under it. Individuals who are prone and at higher risk for this condition are athletes who strain their lower back, like gymnasts and football players. Once the vertebra shifts too far, it can result in a pinched nerve that causes sharp pain or leg numbness. Spondylolisthesis treatment starts with rest and medication. When the condition gets serious, the patient may need to undergo surgery to move the displaced vertebra.
Overgrowth of bone is another cause of sciatica, known as a bone spur. It occurs on your vertebrae, developed from normal wear and tear of the spine due to age or as a result of an injury. Pain occurs once the bone spurs irritate the sciatic nerves in the area. Lower back pain from bone spurs commonly affects patients over 60 years old. However, it is also hereditary, triggered by poor nutrition, injury, and bad posture, which leads them to develop earlier.
In uncommon cases, sciatica pain is caused by a tumor pressing on the sciatic nerve. Some spinal tumors are benign and can be removed through surgery without damaging the nerve. Cancerous tumors occur in the spinal column and grow in the bone or the disc area. This condition is usually common among young adults, where it slowly grows.
Sciatica Home Remedies and Self-care
Regardless of what causes sciatica pain, about 90% of people with sciatica get better without surgery. Most of them heal in weeks. You can actually treat sciatica caused by injury or pregnancy at home with these home treatment ideas. Even though you are not sure what is causing your sciatica, these steps can relieve your pain. However, you can seek medical help if you are dealing with unmanageable discomfort under certain circumstances.
Cold and Heat
Both ice packs and heat can be used to relieve the pain of sciatica and help your body function well. You can use ice for the first seven days. Place the ice on your lower back to lessen the inflammation of the nerve. Be careful of frostbite. Make sure that ice packs do not touch the skin, wrap them in a cloth or towel when applying. Leave them in place for 15 or 20 minutes at a time, with a 15-20 minutes break in between. It should be a cycle of on-off-on-off-on. Taking a break will allow you to assess how you feel.
Ice massage is another way to apply cold to a painful area. Freeze water in a paper cup and cut out the unfilled area of the cup. Massage the lower back with the ice in a circular motion. Cover the area about 6-inches, and keep the cup moving not to give yourself frostbite. Massage should not take more than 10 minutes with at least an hour break between massages. Remember to avoid the bony part of the spine.
One of the most critical factors that can help your pain is moving. Many people who have sciatica put themselves on bed rest or lean on a comfortable chair, thinking that it will help them treat the pain. However, it is a mistake. Although resting for the first couple of days after sciatica pain starts, staying in bed for more days can get things worse. Moving helps your pain in a lot of ways.
- It can strengthen your muscles, which supports your spine.
- It can improve flexibility and range of motion.
- It can boost blood flow to all areas of your body, including the injured area, which speeds up healing.
- It can reduce the perception of pain.
If you are experiencing sciatica pain, move as much as you can as soon as you can. If you think moving makes your pain worse, it should be the best time to seek medical help to understand more what is going on.
Once you can manage the pain, keep moving to reduce the possibility that it will return. Sitting for a long period is never good for anyone. A long time sitting can increase your sciatica risk or make sciatica graver if you already have it.
- It's OK to Exercise. While it seems unnatural to exercise if you are in pain, research suggests that too much rest can aggravate your back and leg symptoms. Add a gentle exercise in your daily activity to ease your sciatica. It should not be strenuous or painful. Walking around the block is one example of physical activity that can help your spine be strong without adding any damage. Exercising triggers the release of endorphins to lessen the perception of pain besides making your spine stronger.
- Stretch It Out. Gentle stretching in your daily activity is an excellent way to improve your spinal flexibility and range of movement while helping your spine build a stronger core and strength. Most stretches are simple to do, which you can perform while watching the tv or your favorite movie.
Refresh Your Posture
Whether you are working at your desk or relaxing, do not stay in the same position for too long as it may cause your sciatica pain to flare up. Change position every 20 minutes and use proper posture to help take the pressure off your spine and minimize your sciatica symptoms.
Head to the Medicine Cabinet
Over the counter, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help ease sciatica symptoms when they arise. NSAIDs are a good option as they relieve both inflammation and pain, compared to acetaminophen, which only reduces pain. However, NSAIDs come with health risks that you should understand before taking them. So, make sure to discuss it with your doctor first for your safety.
Medications For Relief of Pain From Sciatica
There are different types of medications that can be used for sciatic pain, including oral medications.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as aspirin, acetaminophen, NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen, ketoprofen, naproxen.
- Prescription drugs that can relax muscles to ease muscle spasms.
- Antidepressants for chronic low back pain
- Prescription medications for more severe pain
Note that don't give a child aged 18 years old and younger because of the possibility of having Reye's syndrome. A steroid medication, in some cases, is injected into around the spinal nerve. According to research, injections should moderate when irritation is caused by pressure from a herniated disc.
Sciatica usually occurs only on one side of the lower body. The pain usually extends from the lower back all the way through the thigh and the back of the legs. It may also extend to the foot or toes, depending on which sciatic nerve is affected.
Pain from sciatica can be severe and may lead to disability. Other people experience sciatica pain infrequently but can potentially get worse. In case you feel the following, seek medical attention right away.
- Fever and back pain
- Swelling and redness in your back or spine
- Pain that traverses down your legs
- Numbness or weakness in your upper thighs, pelvis, legs, or bottom
- Burning pain when peeing or blood in your pee
- Serious pain
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
When Your Sciatica Warrants a Visit to Your Doctor
It is important that you are able to recognize when to use at-home therapies that are not helping your sciatica. If these treatments don't help you, maybe it is time to seek medical help or see a spine specialist. Some people avoid doctors for various reasons. Perhaps they are not sure how to use their health insurance, or they simply don't like visiting a doctor and prefer another approach.
Chiropractic Care For Sciatica
Among people looking for back pain relief options, choose chiropractic treatment. Around 22 million Americans visit chiropractors every year. And 35% of them, or about 7.7 million, are looking for relief from back pain due to various causes, including sports injuries, accidents, and muscle strains. Some other pains include neck pain, arms, and legs, and headaches.
However, some sciatica symptoms may need medical attention, and although there are rare cases, delaying medical care can lead to permanent nerve damage. Your chiropractor knows when you need medical help and would refer you to a healthcare provider once your situation warrants a visit to your doctor.
Sciatica pain can be classified as acute or chronic. Severe cases are defined by flare-ups that may last for weeks. Recurrent sciatica symptoms, while light severe, are ongoing for months or years.
Relieving the intense pain of sciatica does not always need extreme treatment procedures. Alleviating sciatic nerve pain at home can go a long way to speed your recovery. But the most important thing you can do for your low back and leg pain is to take it seriously and always call your doctor if you are not experiencing relief from these treatments.