Sciatica is a very common condition that involves pain, numbness or weakness that radiates from the buttocks to the foot. The symptoms of this nerve condition typically occur on just one side of the body (in either the right or left leg). The discomfort experienced can range from mild to excruciating. According to physical therapist Bridget Ruppert, “Some people liken it [sciatica] to the nerve pain you experience if you have a toothache.”
Symptoms of sciatica
The origins of this malady usually lie in a pinched nerve, a herniated disc or other lower back problems that aggravate the root tracts of the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lumbar region of the spine to the extremities. People with sciatica frequently report:
- That their pain is worse when sitting
- The pain they feel is acute, sharp, searing and constant (as opposed to intermittent, dull or achy)
- Difficulty moving their leg or toes
- Some individuals find it hard to walk
The tears, ruptures and spinal bulges that cause sciatica sometimes clear up by themselves in a matter of weeks or months, but for some people, the pain can last for years. Conventional treatments for sciatica include NSAIDs, surgery and steroid injections. However, many individuals find lasting relief through less invasive methods including:
- Chiropractic care
- Anti-inflammatory diets
- Topical preparations
- Exercise and physical therapy
- Trigger point massages
- Herbal supplements
- Ice and heat packs
Getting to the root causes of sciatica
Conventional treatments (such as NSAID painkillers and steroidal medications) can alleviate sciatic pain, but they do not address the root cause of sciatica, which typically involves damaged spinal discs that are irritating or compressing the sciatic nerve. Indeed, sciatica is best viewed as a symptom of an underlying medical disorder involving the lower spine. These conditions include bone degeneration, spinal stenosis and herniated vertebrae.
Many patients turn to surgery to correct their spinal problems. This approach can be warranted in cases where the sciatic pain is unbearable and other options have been exhausted. There are minimally invasive procedures that have high rates of success. However, the vast majority of people can probably avoid risky spinal surgeries (which can sometimes backfire leaving the patient even worse off).
Physicians generally believe that the conditions that give rise to sciatica are a long time in making and not the result of one-time injuries. In fact, the vast majority of people with sciatic pain get better on their own in a matter of months.
For reasons such as these, a lot of medical practitioners recommend strength-building exercises, spinal manipulation, anti-inflammatory foods and other all-natural remedies to help address and reverse the root cause of sciatica. With that in mind, here are five evidence-based ways of getting rid of sciatica pain.
1. Chiropractic care
According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, non-invasive chiropractic spinal manipulation is just as effective as surgery in reducing sciatic pain. According to one of the authors, Dr. Gordon McMorland, “Spinal manipulation may create a response in the nervous system that relieves pain and restores normal mobility to the injured area. It also reduces inflammation, creating an environment that promotes the body’s natural healing mechanisms.”
Studies on yoga and sciatica are scarcer than they should be, but research has found that yoga is very effective when it comes to reducing lower back pain and improving mobility. According to Dr. James W. Carson, at the Comprehensive Pain Center at Oregon Health & Science University, the practice of yoga is likely to help people “move and function better so they don’t fall into a posture that aggravates the sciatica.”
3. Topical preparations
A liniment made from St. John’s Wort has been used for centuries to treat nerve damage and sciatic pain. Many herbalists swear by it. For instance, Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, director of the fellowship at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, insists it is one of “one of my favorites for nerve pain.” The herbal remedy is considered safe but may entail some side effects (including interfering with how you metabolize medications). Therefore, it’s highly recommended that you discuss any usage with your doctor before taking it.
4. Exercise and movement
Many people with sciatica avoid movement out of fear that they will aggravate their condition. On the contrary, as physical therapist Bridget Ruppert explains, “Exercise increases blood flow to the disk and the nerve, helping to get rid of the chemicals causing the inflammation.”
There are a variety of piriformis stretches, hip extensions and press up exercises can help you rebuild muscle strength in your lower back, improve your flexibility and reduce inflammation. Here are a couple of basic exercises to get you started. Remember, start gently, try not to overdo it, and proceed at a steady pace so that you don’t aggravate your condition.
- Lie down flat on the floor and bend the knee of your sciatic leg. Then, place your hands underneath the knee and pull it slightly towards your shoulder in a gentle manner. Stay in that position about for 20 to 30 seconds. Finally, straighten your legs and take a short break. Rinse and repeat twice.
- While you are still lying on the floor, gently bend both knees while keeping your rear end on the floor. Next, cross your legs (the sciatic leg over the normal one). Then, place your hands underneath the healthy leg and pull the knees up gently. Remain in this position for about 20 to 30 seconds. Finally, release your legs and return to the starting position. Rinse and repeat twice.
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5. Anti-inflammatory diet
The sciatic nerve is the largest in the body and when it’s pinched or compressed there is going to be a lot of inflammation. Steroids and NSAIDs can offer temporary relief, but they rarely get to the root of the problem. Following an anti-inflammatory diet can be one of the safest and most effective ways of reducing the conditions that are contributing to your sciatic pain.
Including lots of leafy green vegetables, fatty fish that are rich in omega-3 (like wild-caught salmon), plenty of water and herbs like turmeric in your diet can help reverse inflammation. Conversely, you’ll want to avoid processed foods, sugar and most animal products (apart from fish or eggs) for at least several weeks.
Pain relief comes from multiple factors
In most instances, there’s no one remedy for sciatic pain. Instead, relief usually comes from a multiplicity of factors including exercises that build up strength in your lower back, a diet that reverses inflammation and time that allows your body to heal itself naturally.
— Scott O’Reilly