Have you been experiencing pain in your back, hip or outer side of the leg lately? This pain, may be accompanied by tingling and numbness in hands and feet. It also might indicate an issue with your sciatic nerve. The good news is that this condition is usually treatable by a medical professional and is self-diagnosable. We’ll get into that more later as we explore the answer to one question: what is sciatica?
The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It runs from your lower back and down into both legs. It also connects your spinal cord with your feet and leg muscles. When in pain, the sciatic nerve condition is called sciatica.
Sciatic pain is typically caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve. It usually comes from a herniated disc, disc degeneration, spinal stenosis (narrowing) or a bone spur in the spine. This causes pain that starts in the lower (lumbar) spine.
It then radiates down the nerve, causing pain that travels down the back of your leg. This is sometimes accompanied by tingling in your feet. Sciatica typically only affects one side of the body.
This condition can happen suddenly after an injury It can also take months to slowly develop. It can be short-lived (acute) or long-term (chronic). Regardless, it is typically easy to identify and can sometimes be treated at home.
How do I know if I have sciatica?
Sciatica pain radiates from your lower back into the back or side of your legs. It typically affects one side of the body, but can affect both. The pain can range from mild to a sharp, severe pain.
You may also notice that the pain is worse when you’re sitting. You may experience tingling and numbness in the hands and feet, and it may be difficult to stand up or move your leg or foot.
These factors put you at a higher risk for developing sciatica:
- Age: People age 30 to 50 are more likely to develop this condition as they develop spinal changes such as herniated discs.
- Weight: Being overweight or pregnant puts added pressure and stress on your spine, possibly triggering sciatica.
- Work: Jobs that require heavy lifting or twisting or prolonged sitting can add pressure to your spine.
- Diabetes: Because diabetes affects how your body processes and uses blood sugar, it can increase your risk of nerve damage and your chances of developing sciatica.
While you may suspect that you have sciatica, your doctor can give her professional medical advice and confirm the diagnosis with an exam. During the exam, your doctor may observe you during a number of activities, including:
- lying on your back
- lifting your legs one at a time
- walking on your toes or heels
Such activities generally worsen sciatica pain.
How can I treat sciatica?
Many people are able to find pain relief within a few weeks using over-the-counter solutions. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) can help to relieve pain. Your doctor may also prescribe muscle relaxants.
Please talk to your doctor about other medical conditions you are experiencing so she consider possible medical interactions.
Heat and ice therapy
You can also apply heat or ice to the affected area for 20 minutes at a time. Some people find alternating heat and ice throughout the day to be the most effective.
There are also several sciatica stretches to relieve back pain and leg pain that you can try at home. Finding the right stretches that will relieve the pinched nerve and other specific pain and numbness or tingling that you’re experiencing can be a case of trial and error.
Take the stretches slowly. Pay attention to which ones prove to be most effective in addressing weakness, numbness and pain.
Avoid potential pain
Certain situations can make your pain worse and should be avoided, as they can exacerbate your pain:
- wearing high heels
- sleeping on a mattress that’s too hard
- not having a consistent exercise program
Though you may be tempted to sit or rest, staying active can help to reduce both inflammation and pain. Low-impact exercise activities such as walking, swimming or yoga are ideal during your recovery.
Although this condition can often be treated at home, it’s always a good idea to consult with your primary care doctor. She can help rule out any other possible causes of your pain. If you experience weakness in your lower extremities, numbness in your thighs, or loss of bladder control, then you should immediately see your doctor.
If you have tried these at home remedies and are still experiencing pain, or if your pain is getting worse, then make an appointment with your doctor to discuss additional treatments. Steroid injections, physical therapy, massage therapy, acupuncture and chiropractic care can all help to relieve sciatica pain.
If your pain lasts for 3 months or more, you and your doctor may consider surgical options to help alleviate the pain.
How do I prevent sciatica from recurring?
Sciatica often gets better on its own. You may easily manage pain and get relief in just a few days or weeks. However, sciatica can recur, so it’s important to take some steps to prevent it from returning.
- After you’ve recovered from your initial episode, a physical therapist can help you to minimize any lingering pain. She can also provide you with strengthening exercises to improve muscle weakness that may have contributed to nerve compression or nerve damage.
- Integrate these exercises into your everyday routine. They will likely focus on your lower back, abdominal muscles and hip muscles. Strengthening these core muscles will help to support your spine. It will also reduce the chance of future injury that could cause your sciatica to reoccur.
- Evaluate your workplace with a focus on ergonomics to prevent your sciatica from returning.
- If you work in an office, then make sure that your seat offers you good lower back support. Also make sure your knees and hips are level when you’re seated.
- If you lift heavy loads, then focus on proper body mechanics. This includes bending at your knees, holding the load close to your body and never twisting as you lift.
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The team at Pain Resource updated this post as of December 2018 with new information and resources.