For some people, the pain is mild and only lasts for a few hours. For others, the pain is severe and debilitating and may last for months. The pain may begin in the low back and radiate to the buttocks, or the pain may only occur down the leg into the foot. The pain can feel dull, deep and achy, or it can be a sharp, burning sensation with numbness and tingling that may cause weakness.
This multifarious culprit of pain only has one title, sciatica.
Sciatica, or sciatic pain, is the term given to pain that occurs along the path of the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in your body and it branches off from your spine at the L3 vertebra in the lower back, where it exits the spinal column. It travels through the buttocks and thighs, and down the back of your legs into your feet.
The sciatic nerve is not only the longest nerve in your body, but it is also the largest. It has many branches that innervate muscles in your low back, buttocks, hips, thighs, legs and feet.
Depending on where the nerve becomes compressed determines where you feel the pain. The severity of the compression of the nerve determines what type of pain you feel.
What is Causing Your Sciatic Nerve Pain?
The pain that is associated with the sciatic nerve can be the symptom of several different causes. The following is a list of the most common causes of sciatic pain.
Disc Bulges and Herniations.
The most likely cause of a sciatic issue occurs in the spinal column when an intervertebral disc becomes bulging or herniated. A intervertebral disc is the soft, jelly-like centered, ligamentous cushion that separates the vertebral bones in your spine. These discs act as shock absorbers for the spine and prevent you from feeling shocks of nerve pain every time your spine is jostled from movement.
When the jelly-like center of the disc, known as the nucleus pulposus, becomes pushed to the edge of the disc, a bulging of the outer fibers of the disc can occur. This is known as a bulging disc. If the putter fibers allow for the nucleus pulposus to escape from the disc, this becomes a herniated disc.
Both a bulging disc and a herniated disc can cause sciatic pain by putting pressure on the nerve and causing inflammation of the nerve to occur.
Depending on where the disc bulge or herniation is located, and where the compression of the sciatic nerve occurs, will determine where you feel the pain in your body. This is due to the many branches of the sciatic nerve.
Degenerative Disc Disease.
Another issue with the intervertebral discs that may cause sciatic pain is when the discs began to break down due to age and the constant wear and tear they are put through due to your life choices. This deterioration of the discs is called degenerative disc disease.
Degenerative disc disease causes the discs to thin out and break down, thereby allowing for more compression to be placed on the nerves the discs protect. This nerve compression may affect the sciatic nerve.
When one vertebrae slips forward on the vertebrae below it, this is known as spondylolisthesis. This vertebral displacement happens, the sciatic nerve can become inflamed and compressed causing pain.
Joints are the places where bones meet and articulate, or move, with each other. When joints become inflamed or injured the articulation is compromised and often the result is abnormal bone growth that compensates to allow the bones to move in the least stressful manner possible. This abnormal bone growth is known as an osteophyte or more commonly, a bone spur.
Bone spurs that are located in the path of the sciatic nerve can cause pain by directly putting compression on the nerve or by causing inflammation to the soft tissues surrounding the nerve forcing pressure to occur to the nerve, resulting in sciatic pain.
Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the spinal column. It is caused primarily from the aging process.
As you get older, the tissues that surround the spinal column get thicker and the bones of the spinal column get bigger leaving less room in the spinal canal. When this happens, compression of the nerves may occur, including the sciatic nerve.
Spinal stenosis may also be caused by underlying diseases, birth defects, injuries, scoliosis and tumors. All of which can result in sciatic pain.
The piriformis muscle is a deep muscle located in the deep in the buttocks that runs from the lower spine to the top of the femur and allows for hip rotation that turns the leg and foot outward.
The sciatic nerve runs below the piriformis muscle in the majority of the population and it passes directly through the piriformis muscle in around 20% of the population.
Piriformis syndrome occurs when the piriformis muscle compresses the sciatic nerve. If the piriformis muscle is tight or spams, it will compress the nearby sciatic nerve causing irritation and sciatic pain in the buttocks and thighs.
Ways to Ease Your Sciatic Pain
Having a better understanding of what may be causing your sciatic pain will allow you to make educated choices in the treatment of your symptoms.
The following is a list of 5 treatments that have be proven to relieve sciatic pain.
1.) Cold Therapy
Let’s start with the basics. Sciatic pain can be the result of inflammation of the surrounding tissues of the sciatic nerve causing compression to the nerve itself.
The major way to reduce inflammation is to cool the temperature of the surrounding tissues. This can be done using cryotherapy, or as it is more commonly known, cold therapy.
Cold therapy is the use of low temperatures to treat ailments of the body. Cold therapy can ease the pain from your sciatic nerve in two ways.
First, the cold will cause the blood flow to be minimized to the area of concern. This will reduce the amount of swelling or edema (which is excess fluid) causing the inflammation affecting the compression of the nerve, allowing the nerve to function as it should reducing pain significantly.
Secondly, cold therapy can temporarily slow the conduction of the nerve activity, allowing for pain to ease.
The simplest way to use cold therapy for sciatic pain, is through applying ice packs to a localized region that is the root of the pain. The best method for home utilization of cold therapy is to apply ice packs for 15-20 minutes then remove the ice packs for 15-20 minutes, allowing the body to get back to its normal temperature. Repeating this procedure 3-5 times throughout the day.
2.) Stretches and Yoga
Stretching the piriformis, hamstring and hip extensor muscles is of great benefit to sciatic pain sufferers. These muscles are in close proximity to the path of the sciatic nerve.
There are many stretches to combat the onset of sciatic pain depending on mobility, flexibility and the severity of the pain.
One important stretch that is an absolute must, is the foam roller stretch. This stretch requires the use of a foam roller (or a pool noodle). Lay flat on the floor with your knees slightly bent and place the foam roll at the top of the small of your back where your lumbar spine begins. Lay flat on the floor with the roll for 3-5 minutes several times throughout the day.
Another great stretch to do is the standing hamstring stretch stand with the affected leg on an elevated surface (such as a table or a bed) that is just below hip level. Lean your body toward your foot reaching to touch your toes until you feel a stretch. Hold the position in a deep stretch for 30 seconds then repeat 3 times, 3-5 times per day.
The sitting sciatic nerve stretch is a deep stretch of the hamstrings, piriformis and hip flexors. For this stretch, sit in a chair with your knees shoulder with apart. Cross the affected leg across the knee of the stationary leg with the affected leg resting just above the ankle on the knee of the stationary leg. If you can do this without increasing the sciatic pain, push downward on the knee of the affected leg while stabilizing the ankle of the affected leg. This will give you a deep sciatic stretch. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times, 3-5 times per day.
Yoga is an effective method of exercise that can be used to combat and to prevent the onset of sciatic pain. Yoga incorporates many different poses that work to stretch and strengthen the muscles of the body including the muscles involved with sciatic pain.
3.) Get Adjusted
Chiropractic is the treatment of vertebral subluxation that is the direct result of misalignments in the spine and joints of the body.
These misalignments affects the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves of the body causing pain and dysfunction.
Chiropractic care is an all natural method, that is safe and works to keep your body healthy and functioning at its optimal degree.
Chiropractic adjusting, or spinal manipulation, is the practice of restoring the proper alignment of the spine in order to allow for the body to reach its greatest level through both function and structure.
Getting adjusted helps to eliminate sciatic pain by restoring proper alignment to misaligned vertebral bones that cause muscle tightness and irritation, and compression to nerves, including the sciatic nerve.
4.) Massage and Trigger Point Therapy
Trigger points are super sensitive, irritated areas in muscles that sometimes present as nodules or knots.
These knots interfere with the normal function of the musculature and sometimes cause the fibers bands in the muscles to become extremely tight and even inflamed.
Trigger point knots may also refer pain when pressure is applied directly to the area..
Patients with sciatic pain may benefit from having therapy done by a massage therapist to these knots located in the piriformis and gluteal muscles that are compressing the sciatic nerve.
Massage therapists eliminate these knots through trigger point therapy. This is done by applying consultant, gentle pressure to the knot until the tight muscle fibers loosen and the knot is relaxed.
Massage therapy can also benefit sciatic pain sufferers by easing the tight muscles in the low back that can be causing compression to the sciatic nerve.
Massage also releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain killers, to allow relief from sciatic pain.
Sciatic pain can be severely painful, irritating or just an annoyance. Knowing the root cause of your sciatic pain can help determine the correct course of treatment to manage your pain.
As with any chronic issue, it is recommended to see your primary care physician to determine the severity of your sciatic situation in order to manage or eliminate your sciatic nerve pain with the least amount of invasive treatment available.