Some simple self-care measures can resolve your sciatic nerve pain — and prevent it from coming back.
by The Iowa Clinic on Monday, May 11, 2020
We all deal with lower back pain every now and then. Something you do subconsciously like sleeping in the wrong position can leave you sore the next day.
Sciatic back pain is different. It originates in the lower back but it doesn’t stay there. The pain can quickly radiate to your butt, down one or both legs and sometimes all the way to your toes. Instead of a dull soreness or aching back, you might feel a searing pain overtake the entire backside of your body and legs.
When you’re glued to the couch, you might think something’s seriously wrong and that serious treatment is needed. But your healing actually starts at home, and you may never need anything more than a prescription for back stretches and core exercises to overcome sciatic nerve pain.
How do you get sciatica?
From a pinched or irritated nerve. The sciatic nerve runs from the lower spine to the feet. A nerve impingement can be present anywhere along the nerve. Most of the time though, it starts in the spine from one of these common causes:
- Muscle imbalance – Tight back and buttock muscles, especially on one side, can put pressure on the sciatic nerve. Muscles lower down in the thighs can be too short, weak or tight, forcing your back muscles to overcompensate.
- Pregnancy – It’s no secret that carrying a child does a number on your back. The added weight and pressure in your tummy stretches and weakens the back and spine muscles.
- Back injury – An accident, trauma or sports injury can cause sciatic pain by tearing muscles, damaging nerves and fracturing your spine.
- Herniated disk – Your vertebrae are separated and cushioned by disks which are in front of the very beginning of the sciatic nerve. A herniated disk in your lower spine either from an injury or the aging process can put pressure on the nerves. It’s the most common cause of sciatica.
- Bone spurs and spinal stenosis – The spinal canal holds and protects the spinal cord and surrounding nerves. As you get older, your spinal canal can narrow partially from a spur or overgrowth of bone and compress everything inside it.
- Spondylolisthesis – Another painful spine condition, spondylolisthesis can cause sciatic pain when the vertebrae slip out of position and pinch the sciatic nerve.
How do you get rid of sciatic nerve pain?
Relieving sciatica rarely requires surgery. Only chronic cases need surgical treatment, and that’s only after you’ve exhausted your other options. Most cases of sciatica resolve with non-invasive treatments in a few weeks.
There’s a lot you can do yourself long before it gets to that point. Usually, with a commitment to these self-care remedies, you can recover from sciatic pain on your own.
Conservative Sciatica Treatments
Sciatic pain treatment always starts off with a conservative approach. Take it easy, get plenty of rest and let your body’s natural healing response do the work. You can still treat the pain and underlying muscle tightness by alternating between heating and icing your lower back or leg. Acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen can provide further sciatic nerve pain relief.
These conservative treatments may take care of sciatica in a matter of days. But if you’re resting for more than a few days, that can actually make things worse. The underlying issue of weak, imbalanced and tight muscles is still there. For that, gentle stretches and exercises are needed.
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Sciatica Stretches and Exercises
To fix the root of your sciatic pain, you have to target the specific muscles that are pinching your nerves. You may need to improve your core and strengthen your back, or you might have to work on hip and leg muscles that are harder to reach but are common sources of a pinched sciatic nerve. Developing a daily routine of these gentle movements can help resolve symptoms now and prevent pain in the future:
1. Cat and Cow Poses
Decompress your lower back and spine by alternately arching your back and rounding it like a scared cat. Start out on all fours with your hands lined up with your shoulders and your knees right below your hips. Inhale during the cat pose and exhale during the cow pose. Hold each for two seconds at a time and repeat the movements 10 times.
2. Pigeon Poses
Reclining, sitting, forward or reverse, there are a variety of “pigeon poses” you can do target your hip muscles. For a reverse pigeon pose, lie down with your knees bent. Lift your left foot and cross your ankle over your right knee. Pull your right leg toward your chest and hold it for 30 seconds. Do the same for the other leg and do two repetitions on each side.
You can perform this stretch lying down, laying back or sitting with your legs outstretched — whatever’s most comfortable for you. Pick the position that requires the least amount of strain. If you have sciatica pain from pregnancy, all of these positions may be difficult or uncomfortable. Modify the forward pigeon pose by placing a pillow under you, just behind the shin of the bent leg. Then, lean forward to stretch out.
3. Spinal Twists
To regain side-to-side mobility in your back, try this sitting stretch to help create space in your spine. With your left leg outstretched, bend your right knee, cross it over the left and place your foot flat on the ground. Place your left elbow on the outside of your right knee, twist to the right and hold it for 30 seconds. Do this three times and then switch to the other side.
Physical Therapy for Sciatica
There are hundreds of stretches and exercises you can do to treat your sciatic nerve pain. A physical therapist can identify the area causing your condition and design an individualized program that targets the specific weak or tight muscles. They may also treat your pain with dry needling, massage, ultrasound, or other methods to help you get back to activity faster.
How do you keep sciatica from coming back?
You can’t prevent each and every case of sciatica. Strained muscles in pregnancy are unavoidable. Accidents, herniated discs, stenosis and other spine issues are not preventable. But if you maintain a healthy back and spine, you can put a stop to sciatica. Follow these tips so you never have to experience that searing pain again:
- Move more. Sitting for long periods of time leads to stiff, tight lower back, hip and leg muscles. Get up and get moving to stay loose.
- Practice good posture. Keep your back upright and in alignment when you sit, stand, sleep and lift. Proper posture puts less pressure on your back, especially when you’re lifting things.
- Stick to your stretching program. Regular exercise and stretching strengthens the muscles that connect to and support your spine. Perform basic sciatica stretches or keep following your physical therapist’s recommendations to keep the pain away.