Back pain can make performing daily activities difficult, if not impossible at times. Sciatica is a type of back pain that radiates along the sciatic nerve, which extends from the lower back through the hips and buttocks and down each leg. Sciatica usually affects only one side of the body.
Sciatica pain may be mild and disappear in a few weeks, or it can be more severe, even becoming chronic in some individuals. The most severe cases of sciatica may even require spinal injections or, as a last resort, surgery. The good news is that many people are able to relieve sciatica pain at home with some lifestyle changes and other self-care measures. It is important, however, to first understand what causes sciatica in order to avoid further injury and more severe pain.
Causes of Sciatic Nerve Pain
Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve is irritated. This inflammation can be caused by:
- A herniated disc, also called a slipped disc
- Spinal stenosis
- Pinching or stretching of the sciatic nerve
- A bone condition called spondylolisthesis
- Piriformis syndrome
- Osteoarthritis or fractures caused by osteoporosis
- More serious health problems such as tumor, blood clots, and abscesses
A herniated disc occurs when the strong outer layer of a spinal disc ruptures and allows the center, which serves as a cushion for the bones in the back, to squeeze out, putting pressure on the sciatic nerve.
Spinal stenosis is an overgrowth of the bone in the protective canal containing the spinal cord.
Spondylolisthesis occurs when one backbone moves backward or forward over another backbone.
With piriformis syndrome, the sciatic nerve becomes trapped in the buttock by the piriformis muscle.
Rarely, sciatica is a symptom of underlying more serious health problems.
When to See a Doctor About Sciatica
While sciatica can, in most cases, be successfully treated at home, sufferers should see a physician in these cases:
- Pain has not improved after several days or has gotten worse.
- The person with sciatica pain is having sciatica for the first time and is younger than 20 or older than 55.
- The sufferer is HIV positive.
- The individual with pain has problems bending forward longer than two weeks.
- The sufferer has cancer or has a history of cancer.
- The one with pain has recently lost a lot of weight.
- Someone has back pain accompanied by unexplained fever and chills.
- The person with pain has weakness that is getting worse over time.
- The sufferer uses IV drugs.
Go to a hospital emergency department if any of the following are present along with sciatica:
- Pain becomes unbearable despite efforts to relieve it.
- Pain seems centered in the back of the chest.
- Pain occurs after a violent injury like a fall from a ladder or a vehicle accident.
- The sufferer has a body temperature higher than 101 degrees.
- The sufferer becomes unable to move or feel the feet or legs.
- The sufferer loses control of his or her bladder or bowels or experiences numbness in the genitals. (These may be symptoms of a serious injury to the nerves at the end of the spinal canal.)
If none of these other conditions are present, however, those suffering lower back pain and leg pain stemming from sciatica can usually get relief at home. The burning, stabbing pain of sciatica is relieved when pressure is taken off the irritated sciatic nerve and when inflammation is reduced. In addition to over-the-counter medicines, a number of natural cures that contain no drugs can provide effective sciatica pain relief at home.
7 Effective Home Remedies for Sciatica
1. For fast, short-term pain relief, anti-inflammatory drugs like naproxen and ibuprofen (also called NSAIDs) may be effective. Aspirin also may reduce pain.
2. Try a topical pain reliever in conjunction with the over-the-counter pain pills. An effective herbal treatment for pain is cayenne. These peppers, cultivated for 7,000 years at least, contain a substance called capsaicin that affects the nervous system by blocking certain neurotransmitters that relay information to the brain that results in what is called pain. You can buy topical treatments that contain capsaicin or, for a truly natural formula, you can make your own.
3. Hot and cold compresses also can provide temporary sciatica pain relief. Try using a cold pack first to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. A bag of frozen peas makes a great cold pack. Wrap the bag in a clean towel and apply it for 20 minutes several times a day. After two or three days, switch to a hot pack to continue reducing inflammation and to promote circulation. For heat you may prefer store-bought hot patches, a heating pad, or a heat lamp. Alternating heat and cold may provide better pain relief for some people.
4. While it may seem contrary to logic when dealing with back pain, exercise can actually relieve pain from sciatica. Stretches, in particular, can help to decompress the spine. Just avoid twisting, jerking, or bouncing during the stretches, and try to hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds. Yoga has many poses that offer gentle stretching for the back, the lower back, the hips, and the legs. Try Warrior I and Warrior II, Upward-Facing Dog, Downward-Facing Dog, Cobra, Easy Pose, Fire Log Pose, and Mountain, to start.
5. Certain sleeping positions can relieve sciatica. Try lying on your side in a curled fetal position with a pillow between your knees. If you are a die-hard back sleeper, place a pillow or rolled towel under your knees to reduce the pressure on your lower back.
6. Celery juice is a natural anti-inflammatory treatment, and it is best consumed within 20 minutes of juicing. If you have a juicer, this is a good option for sciatica treatment when used in conjunction with gentle stretching, hot and cold applications, and correct sleeping posture.
7. Try to limit bed rest to two days, at the most. Lying in bed for longer periods may actually make the pain from sciatica worse. So get up and get moving slowly, being careful to avoid any heavy lifting. If laying down is too uncomfortable for you, try relaxing and even sleeping in a chair. A recliner chair is ideal.
The pain from sciatica can be disruptive and debilitating. And while there are some instances when the sufferer needs to seek medical treatment, many cases of sciatica can be successfully treated at home with herbs, over-the-counter pain relievers, gentle stretches, and hot and cold application. Be consistent with treatment and patient with your body as it heals.