Sciatica is the medical condition that causes lower back pain that patients say seems to “shoot” from their low back and hips all the way down their legs.
It’s intensely painful – usually with sharp stabbing pain accompanied by muscle weakness, numbness, and/or “pins and needles” in the legs.
It can be debilitating – often resulting in time off work and complete withdrawal from socializing and your other hobbies and activities.
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If you suffer from this type of pain in your lower back and the associated muscle weakness in your legs, it can be worrying.
Are you in pain now?
This article covers the basics of what sciatica is and the common approaches to treating it. You are likely familiar with many of the things that will be mentioned, possibly because you have tried them and they have not worked. We’ll look at why that is, and what has been missed.
Rest assured that if it is sciatica, we can treat it – without surgery, steroid injections, or other invasive treatments.
What Is Sciatica?
Sciatica is the term used to describe pain that runs along the path of your sciatic nerve – the large nerve that splits in two at your lower back and runs down into each of your legs.
Most patients only have pain on one side – although it is technically possible to have sciatica on both sides of your body at the same time. But that would be unlucky.
Sciatica is most commonly caused by a compressed nerve somewhere in the spine.
It can cause pain, inflammation, sensory issues like tingling and numbness, and mild muscle weakness in most cases. Sometimes it can cause bowel and bladder dysfunction, as well. The pain is usually intense. It can also cause bowel and bladder dysfunction and require surgery in severe cases.
Doctors often look for something like a piece of bone sticking out (a bone spur) or slipped disc – where one of the “pillows” between your vertebrae moves out of place and pushes on the nerve.
Other causes more rarely can include osteoarthritis, degenerative disk disease, and spinal stenosis, a tumor, piriformis syndrome, or trauma that involves the spine and/or sciatic nerve.
What Are The Symptoms Of Sciatica?
The symptoms of sciatica can vary from person to person depending on the cause and what is pressing on the sciatic nerve. But most cases involve pain that follows the sciatic nerve path – radiating from the lower back, through the hips/buttocks, and into the lower legs.
Some patients report mild pain with some tingling and/or muscle weakness. In contrast, others report excruciating, lightning-sharp, stabbing pain that keeps them awake at night and affects all areas of their life.
Others say it’s like 240v of electricity running down their leg. The pain can also worsen when you sit still for long periods or cough/sneeze.
The main symptoms of Sciatica to look out for are:
- Moderate to intense pain in your lower back that “travels” down your legs
- Tingling – like pins and needles, muscle weakness or loss of sensation on one side of your back, glutes, legs, or feet
- Pain that gets worse when you move, or paradoxically: don’t move
- Problems with your bowel or bladder control
How To Relieve Pain Caused By Sciatica
Stretch: Most of us have been told the best way to reduce the pain and prevent symptoms from coming back is to stretch the muscles in your lower back and legs gently, and externally rotate the affected hip. The most common recommendation is to try incorporating these popular yoga poses into your daily routine:
- Pigeon Pose
- Reclining Pigeon
- Scissor Pose
Other stretches that may help with sciatica include:
- Hamstring stretches
- Knee to shoulder stretches
- Piriformis stretches
- Groin and adductor stretches
We are frequently told by clients, though, that stretching doesn’t help. And for most it won’t. Until principles of myofascial release are incorporated into how you are stretching. People who hang around with us for any period of time learn that it isn’t so much about the stretches you do as it is about how you do them.
We can help you learn and apply myofascial release principles to stretching that will immediately start to improve the effectiveness of what you are doing. You can also find introductory instructional videos on our YouTube channel.
*But please do not perform the exercises if you feel any increase in your pain levels. Stop immediately if you feel any sort of pain – other than a mild stretching sensation.
Exercise: Sciatica is often associated with inflammation – either as the cause of the sciatica or as a side effect of the condition. Most of us know that exercise is a great way to increase the blood and oxygen flow throughout the body and reduce inflammation.
However, with sciatica, exercise isn’t always the answer, especially when you’re already in pain. Too much exercise can do the opposite: increase inflammation and cause further injury. Short walks might help with this.
Like stretching, though, how you exercise matters. So does when. Often myofascial and connective tissues need more space and ability to glide freely before exercise can be effective.
The order in which you do things as you recover and heal from sciatica matters. It is important to work with specialists who recognize this and can tailor a plan specific to your needs, including a return to exercise as the body and tissues are able.
Rest: Sometimes, the best thing you can do is take a few days off from your regular activities to rest and allow your body some time to heal. However, doing this for longer than 2-3 days can exacerbate your symptoms, causing even more stiffness and pain.
Rest from your regular activities is most effective when coupled with effective treatment and self treatment of restricted and thickened tissues in the body that are contributing to sciatica. Otherwise, you are likely just “taking a break”, and once you return to activity, the sciatica returns also because nothing has changed in the tissues.
Heat Therapy: Using heat wraps and/or ice packs can sometimes help to relieve the pain of sciatica. Cold therapy can reduce inflammation. On the other hand, heat can help relax the muscles in your lower back. Both can potentially help temporarily relieve the symptoms of sciatica.
However, neither addresses what is causing the sciatica in the first place. And, like rest, once the effect of heat or ice has worn off, the symptoms return.
Alternative therapy: Some patients find complementary therapies like massage and biofeedback helpful for sciatica, but the pain relief is likely only temporary in most cases.
Medicines: When pain is severe, a doctor may prescribe certain types of anti-depressants and/or muscle relaxants to help ease the pain. They may also suggest that you have a steroid injection given directly at the site of the pain.
But these are all temporary solutions that simply mask symptoms for a bit.
Longer term, we encourage you to find a solution to sciatic pain that doesn’t involve pain medication (like Myofascial Release Therapy).
Many over-the-counter pain medications, especially those prescribed by your doctor, can negatively affect your health if you take longer than 7-10 days. But over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications can help at the onset of pain in the first instance.
Surgery For Sciatica
In rare cases (5-10% of cases), a doctor may recommend surgery to fix the cause of their sciatica. If you have been in pain for three months or longer or experience the symptoms of “Cauda Equine Syndrome” – where you lose control of your bladder and bowels, your doctor may want to discuss the prospect of surgery with you. But we would urge you to come and see us first before you commit to surgery.
Surgery can remove a disc or bone spur that is pressing on the sciatic nerve, which can result in instant pain relief. However, there is a reason the disc started to press on the nerve in the first place, a reason the bone spur formed.
Often this stems from restricted and glued tissues in the body that leave too little space for the bones and nerves to function optimally. The result is a disc pressing on a nerve or a bone spur. Addressing one without the other is an incomplete solution.
The symptoms may be gone, but the situation that led to the need for surgery still exists and must be addressed in order to prevent the same thing from happening again.
How To Treat Sciatica Naturally
At Release Works, we see excellent results in sciatica patients using Myofascial Release Therapy – often with patients who have been in pain for three months or more. In short, we look at what is causing something to press on the nerve and address that.
Here we take a whole body view. Combine that with more effective approach to tensions and problems in the tissues, and we can help people more than most doctors currently realize. Even to the point of possibly avoiding the surgery that your doctor is certain you need. Or if not avoiding surgery, making it far more effective with a better resulting outcome.
We can help you too.
Want to take us up on that? Apply now for your free 30-minute telephone consultation (or Discovery Visit) with a Sciatica specialist.