Relieving Sciatic Nerve Pain
From causes and symptoms to treatments and prevention tips; here’s your guide to managing sciatic nerve pain.
Published: Tuesday 18 October 2022
Back pain is one of the most common forms of pain experienced by people worldwide, and one of the main causes of this is sciatica - compression of the sciatic nerve. Fortunately, this condition typically goes away on its own, but there are some medical and home remedies that can help relieve the pain experienced.
What is sciatica?
Sciatica is the medical term used to describe pain caused by irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve, affecting both the lower back and legs. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the human body - it starts at the lower back and travels down each leg to the feet. When experiencing sciatica, pain can be felt in the lower spine, pelvis, hamstrings, calves and feet. Episodes of pain tend to last between 4-6 weeks, however pain can ease within a shorter amount of time.
What are the symptoms of sciatica?
The most typical symptoms of sciatica involve experiencing pain from your lower back to your legs and feet. If you have sciatica you may experience the following symptoms in your lower limbs:
- Burning sensations
- Muscle weakness
- ‘Pins and needles’ sensations
- Sharp or shooting pains
The pain may also be worsened when sneezing, coughing, while sitting in the same position for long periods of time or after moving suddenly.
If you are only experiencing back pain, it is unlikely that you have sciatica.
What are the causes of sciatica?
Sciatica is caused by something irritating the sciatic nerve, either by pressing it, rubbing it, compressing it or pinching it. One of the most common causes of sciatica is a slipped disc, where the soft cushion of tissue that sits between the bones of your spine is pushed out of place.
Other causes of sciatica include:
- Back injuries
- Spinal stenosis (the narrowing of spaces within the spinal cord which can irritate nerves)
- Spondylolisthesis (where one of the bones within the spinal cord (vertebrae) slips forward out of position)
What are the risk factors for sciatica?
You are more likely to experience sciatica if you:
- Are pregnant
- Lead a sedentary lifestyle
- Have diabetes
- Are between 30 & 50 years old
- Have a job that involves heavy lifting or sitting in the same position for long periods
- Are overweight
How do you relieve sciatic pain?
Sciatica usually resolves itself on its own, however, there are medical treatments and home remedies available that will provide pain relief to the areas affected. These include:
- Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) - these medications, like ibuprofen, will help to relieve sciatic pain by reducing inflammation and swelling to the muscles around the lower back and legs.
- Pain relief gel - a topical gel like Voltarol which contains the active ingredient diclofenac diethylammonium can provide pain relief to the affected areas as it is also a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication that aims to reduce swelling and inflammation.
- Heat/ice packs - a combination of heat and ice packs can be used to help relieve sciatic pain. Heat packs help stimulate blood flow to the area, while ice packs reduce swelling and inflammation.
Although it may be tempting to lie-down and rest for long periods if you are experiencing sciatic pain, this can make the healing process longer. It is best to stay active and carry on your normal routine as much as possible. Other exercises like swimming and walking can also help ease your discomfort.
Which stretches can help relieve sciatic nerve pain?
There are several different gentle stretches which can be done to help relieve pain from sciatica:
- Knee-to-opposite-shoulder stretch:
Side-lying hip stretch:
- Lie on your back on the floor.
- Stretch your legs out and point your toes upward.
- Pull your left knee to your chest, then lean it towards your right shoulder.
- Hold it there for 30-45 seconds and repeat 3 times.
- Switch legs.
Back-lying hip rotation:
- Lie on your left side on the floor with a pillow beneath your head and your knees partially bent.
- Slowly pull your right knee towards your chest and hold for 3 seconds, then lower your knee back so your right leg is aligned with your left leg.
- Repeat this exercise 3 times before switching legs.
- Lie on your back on the floor with your legs together and your knees raised, so your feet are flat on the floor.
- Keeping your knees together and your shoulders in place, lower your knees towards the floor on your left side.
- Hold this position for 15 seconds before returning to your starting position.
- Repeat this exercise on the right side.
- Repeat all steps 3 times.
How do you prevent sciatic nerve pain?
It is not always possible to prevent future episodes of sciatica, however, following these prevention tips can reduce your risk:
- Keep a good posture whilst sitting, standing and lifting objects.
- Exercise regularly to keep your joints flexible and strengthen the muscles of your lower back and abdomen.
- Maintain a healthy weight through staying active and healthier eating.
- Stop smoking, as this reduces the blood supply to your bones, weakening your spine and increasing the stress on the vertebral disks.