Sciatica is pain caused by irritation of the sciatic nerve in the lower spine. The pain can vary from mild to severe as it radiates down the back of the thigh and into the lower leg. The source of the irritation can be a slipped or herniated disk, a spasm in the piriformis muscle, or a narrowing of the spinal column.
Symptoms include numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness that radiates down past the hips into the back of the knee, calf or foot. Generally, those suffering sciatic pain experience symptoms on one side only.
Many people endure sciatic pain on and off for years before finally seeking treatment. This is a mistake because often sciatica can be prevented with some simple exercises or eased with treatment.
Sciatica typically results from a combination of health practices: poor posture, excess weight, a sedentary lifestyle and too much sitting. Consequently, some simple lifestyle changes can dramatically alter the incidence of sciatic pain.
It’s important to mention that many people suffering from severe sciatic pain may be encouraged to consider surgery – by surgeons, of course – but that should always be the last resort. Non-invasive treatments often work just as well or better, and lack the serious side effects. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found no difference in outcomes among those who tried conservative treatment and those who opted for surgery.
With that in mind, here are some simple steps you can take to reduce the onset of sciatica and ease its symptoms once it begins:
- Exercise and lose weight
Excess weight and sedentary living both contribute to various forms of back pain, including sciatica. As with many health issues, exercising and losing weight can prevent the onset of sciatica. Exercises should focus on improving core and back strength to improve posture.
- Increase flexibility
Stretching or yoga can help avert sciatica by loosening up the hip muscles, hamstrings, piriformis and gluteus muscles and reducing pressure on the sciatic nerve. These muscles support the body and help maintain good posture. In addition, when the piriformis, a muscle in the buttocks, gets inflamed it can contribute to sciatica. One stretch for the hips and piriformis involves lying on your back with your feet on the ground and crossing one leg over the other just above the knee. Bringing the thigh of the supporting leg up stretches the butt on the other side. Hold that for 30 seconds.
- Avoid sitting for long periods
Sitting for many hours uninterrupted is incompatible with good posture, disk health or core strength. An hour of exercise at the end of the day doesn’t make up for eight hours of sitting, so make sure to get up every hour and stretch or walk around if you work at a desk. Better yet, stand at your desk and incorporate moving around into your work and leisure routines.
- Heat and cold
Ironically, placing a heating pad or ice pack on the lower back has the same effect – reduced pain from sciatica. Heat works better at loosening up muscles while cold calms inflammation. A warm bath can substitute for a heating pad.
- Chiropractic adjustment
Research shows that chiropractic care reduces the number of days with swelling and pain from sciatica and the amount of pain when it occurs. A good chiropractor will also advise their patients about diet and exercise, stretching and strength-building, and suggest other treatment modalities, like physical therapy, massage and acupuncture.
If you suffer from sciatica, there is good news: most people respond well to simple, non-invasive treatment in just a few weeks.