Sciatica is a painful condition that affects the sciatic nerve, which is the longest nerve in the body. It runs from the lower back down through the hips and glutes and along the leg to the foot. As many as 40% of people will suffer from sciatica at some point in their lives. It can be a debilitating condition and inhibit your basic daily activities like walking and sitting.
The pain levels can vary from a mild ache to a sharp, excruciating pain, sometimes feeling like an electric shock. Leg pain is the most common complaint with sciatica, often described as a burning sensation, along with numbness or tingling. Sciatica typically only affects one side of the body, but it can radiate down both legs in some cases. Some weakness in the affected leg or foot may also be experienced.
What Causes Sciatica?
Pain is caused by irritation, pinching or compression of the sciatic nerve in the lower back. A herniated disc or a bone spur in the spine can press on the nerve, resulting in the radiated pain. It may also be caused by the narrowing of the bony openings for nerves or the spinal cord, which is known as spinal stenosis.
Sciatica becomes more frequent with age and those who have acute or chronic back pain seem to be more prone to sciatica.
Contributing factors may be muscle tension or poor positioning of the lower back or hips. Poor posture or being overweight can contribute as well as your height – tall people may be at a higher risk of developing sciatica.
A sedentary lifestyle is also a factor, such as those who have a desk job or travel long distances in a vehicle. Diabetes affects the way the body uses blood sugar and can increase the risk of nerve damage.
Treatment for Sciatica
As sciatica is most often caused by an issue in your lower back, it is critical to firstly obtain an accurate diagnosis of the underlying cause to then consider specific treatment options to suit you.
Relief from sciatica can usually be relatively simple, sometimes with little or even no treatment. Generally, you will typically resolve your sciatic pain within a few weeks. Some self-care such as ice packs on the sites of the pain, warm baths and gentle exercises may help greatly. If the pain persists however, there are other effective sciatica treatments available.
It is better to continue to exercise rather than rest to relieve sciatica as movement nourishes the spinal discs, improves bone and muscle strength and improves flexibility of the sciatic nerve. There are some specific sciatic exercises you can learn from a trained sports physiotherapist with sciatica knowledge. The team at Melbourne Sports Physiotherapy can assist you with these and ensure correct posture and technique for optimal results and have you moving well as soon as possible.
If you need even more intervention for your sciatica, sports physiotherapy and remedial massage are a couple of the best choices. Remedial massage will help to relieve any muscle stiffness in the back, hips and legs. Physiotherapy will provide strengthening exercises for the affected areas. Consider using both these therapies together for a really effective way to combat sciatica pain and keep it at bay.
It is important to note that although rare, some sciatic symptoms may require immediate treatment as they may indicate serious underlying conditions such as spinal nerve damage. See a doctor if your pain gets worse or does not start to improve in a couple of weeks. Things to look for are loss of feeling, increased weakness and loss of bowel or bladder function.
How to Prevent Sciatica
Sciatica cannot always be prevented and can recur, however there are some things you can do to do to minimise this condition:
Regular exercise, paying particular attention to your core, will keep your back and abdomen muscles strong. This is essential for good posture and alignment.
Focus on your posture, especially when you are sitting. If you spend a lot of time sitting, choose a chair with good lower back support, armrests and a swivel base. Make sure your knees and hips are sitting level, using a footstool if necessary.
Use your body well – when you lift something heavy, use your legs to bear the weight, move straight up and down and only bend at the knees. Avoid awkward twisting movements and if you stand for long periods of time, rest one foot on a stool occasionally to relieve pressure in the body.