Sciatica: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

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sciaticaThe reputation of sciatic nerve pain precedes its name as many refer to it as an indescribable, excruciating pain.

Known as a misunderstood condition in the medical field, those who suffer from this chronic disorder are the only ones who truly comprehend the effects. Let’s uncover the underlying causes of sciatica to better understand this debilitating condition, as well as the possible ways to prevent it.

Our sciatic nerve begins in our lower back and branches at the pelvis to run through the buttocks, legs, and feet. Being the longest and largest nerve, any damage, compression, or pressure placed on it can have long-term effects.

The chronic pain is felt mostly in the legs and buttocks, and no two patients share the same symptoms. The symptoms can be misdiagnosed as belonging to other conditions, and it is deemed sciatica only when the cause originates in the spine.

Causes of Sciatica

With this condition, one of the frustrating questions is what causes sciatica to flare up? And, this is a mystery for the medical field as there is not one exact cause for many cases of the condition. What is known is there is often damage from an injury that affects the nerve itself.

One of the most common causes is disc prolapse, also referred to as a slipped disc. With this condition, the soft discs between our vertebrae disengage and compress the sciatic nerve. It can occur from the wear and tear of the discs or even by lifting heavy objects.

Other sciatica causes include:

  • Spinal injury
  • Spinal infections
  • Tumors
  • Muscle spasms
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Spondylolisthesis

These causes usually have their own triggers and factors that can put you at a higher risk for sciatica and they include:

  • Smoking
  • The aging process
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • Prolonged sitting
  • Handling heavy objects
  • Repetitive twisting of the back

Symptoms of Sciatica

When we first think of a possible condition of sciatica, we may think of pain being the first and only indicator, which is partially true as pain is a varying factor. Sciatica pain is felt on one side of the body, as the pain can travel from the lower back to the foot. There are accompanying sciatica symptoms that may be experienced in the groin, knees, calves, and ankles aside from the back and legs.

It can be a dull ache that progressively worsens into a paralyzing state of pain. The pain can worsen with movement, activity, prolonged sitting, and while coughing or sneezing. Sciatic nerve pain can also occur when you are completely still.

You may suspect a problem with the sciatic nerve with:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Muscle weakness
  • Generalized back pain
  • Muscle spasms

Treatment of Sciatica

There is no medical treatment for most cases of sciatica, except in rare cases where spinal surgery is required. The doctor will suggest cold and hot compresses for treating isolated areas, as well as massage and physiotherapy.

We have outlined some sciatica treatment exercise options, as it is important to maintain movement despite the level of pain. These sciatica stretches are designed to alleviate pain.

1. Reclining Pigeon Pose

Lay on the floor on your back, and bring your right leg up to a right angle and hold it up with your hands clasped around it. Lift your left leg to have the right leg ankle resting on top of your left knee. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Repeat with the other side.

This common yoga pose targets the hips and is the best stretch to relieve sciatica pain.

2. Sitting Pigeon Pose

Sitting on the floor with your legs stretched in front, bend your right left leg with the ankle resting on your left knee. Lean forward and hold this position for 10 to 30 seconds. Repeat this with the other leg.

Do this stretch once you can sit without experiencing severe pain.

3. Forward Pigeon Pose

From a kneeling position, place your hands on the floor in front of you, and bring your right leg forward to lay across the floor in front of you. Reach your left leg behind you and rest the top of your left foot on the floor with your toes pointing back. Sit up straight while maintaining position.

Take a deep breath and lean forward over your right leg as you exhale. Use your hands on the floor to support you. Hold and repeat on the other side.

4. Knee to Opposite Shoulder

Lay on your back with your legs stretched out, and bend your right leg up to form a hand clasp behind your knee. Pull your right leg across your body as if you were trying to touch the left shoulder. Hold this position for 30 seconds in the spot you can comfortably reach with no pain and push your leg back to the starting position. Repeat this three times before doing it on the other side.

5. Sitting Spinal Stretch

Sit on the floor with your legs extended and bend your right knee to move your right leg over top of your left leg. Rest your right foot on the floor outside of your left knee. Slowly twist to the right, placing your left elbow on the outside of your right knee and hold for 30 seconds. At this point, you should be facing slightly behind you on the right side. Repeat this three times before switching to the other side.

6. Standing Hamstring Stretch

Place your right foot on a step or chair below the hip level and flex your foot for a straight leg and toes. You can bend the knee if need be. Bend forward to the point before you feel any pain. In this position, release right hip down and hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on this other side.

Prevention of Sciatica

Many cases of sciatica can occur with injury or prolonged repetitive movements of the spine. While not all cases are preventable, there are actions we can take to try and avoid situations that cause this condition.

1. Posture

Sciatica prevention starts with good posture. While standing, ensure your ears align with your shoulders, which should be aligned with your hips. Your buttocks should be tucked in with knees slightly bent.

When sitting, use a sturdy backrest to support your lower back. Ensure there is a firm cushion or use a lumbar roll if needed.

2. Sleep

Try to get adequate rest every night. During sleep, place a pillow between your knees when sleeping on your side or try to sleep on your back. Ensure you sleep on a firm mattress that keeps your spine straight.

Use a board underneath an older or saggy mattress. Support the spine by using a pillow under your head, with your neck at an even level.

3. Exercise

Strengthen the abdominal muscles that support the lower back by performing crunches daily. Start by laying on the floor with your hands clasped behind your head and knees bent. Lift your shoulders up 10 inches and press your lower back into the floor. Repeat this 10 to 20 times.

Walking and swimming are also great exercise routines to help strengthen your core.

4. Handling Objects

Safely lift heavy objects and avoid carrying more than you can handle. Lift from a squatting position, and use your legs to lift, not your back. Be sure to keep objects close to your body.

5. Prolonged Standing and Sitting

Avoid standing or sitting in one position for long periods of time. During prolonged sitting, be sure to take frequent breaks and get up to stretch and walk around. Prolonged standing can be corrected by propping one foot on an elevated object, or shifting weight from one foot to the other.

6. Proper Footwear

Since our sciatic nerve runs from our lower back to our feet, it is important to take care of the lower extremities as well. Use proper footwear when exercising, walking, and working. Avoid wearing high heels more than one and a half inches in height.

Sciatica can be a debilitating disorder that can keep a person from enjoying life’s joys and daily activities. Any injury to or pressure on the sciatic nerve can cause progressive pain from your back to your toes. Symptoms are rarely the same for two people, and there is not one designated cause.

Sciatica is often misdiagnosed and highly misunderstood by medical professionals and patients themselves. Most cases do not have treatment options other than pain medication, but there are exercises that can help with this condition, as well as strengthen your lower back. There are several everyday tasks and activities that may help prevent such a terrible condition from occurring. Start making small changes today to lead a pain-free life.

Related: 8 Effective Homeopathic Remedies for Sciatica


Sources:
“What Is Sciatica?” The Sciatica Authority; http://www.sciatica-pain.org/what-is-sciatica.html, last accessed May 3, 2017.
“Sciatica,” NHS United Kingdom; http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Sciatica/Pages/Introduction.aspx, last accessed May 3, 2017.
“Pain Management and Sciatica,” Web MD; http://www.webmd.com/back-pain/guide/sciatica-symptoms, last accessed May 3, 2017.
“Sciatica,” Stanford Health Care; https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/back-neck-and-spine/sciatica.html, last accessed May 3, 2017.
“6 Stretches for Sciatica Pain Relief,” Healthline; http://www.healthline.com/health/back-pain/sciatic-stretches?m=0#overview1, last accessed May 3, 2017.

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