By Karen Gordon
The majority of people will suffer with back pain at some point in their lives, and anyone who has ever experienced the agonising pain of sciatica will know just disruptive it can be to everyday life.
Sciatica is defined as pain or discomfort associated with the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back down and buttocks down into the back of the legs to the feet (it’s the longest nerve in the body!). Pain occurs when there’s pressure on, or damage to, the sciatic nerve.
The most common cause of sciatica is a disc prolapse – also known as disc herniation or slipped disc, but lumbar degenerative disc disease, bone spurs, lumbar spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, piriformis syndrome, or spinal tumors can all result in sciatica.
James Farmer, physiotherapist and personal trainer says:
“Sciatica is really an ‘umbrella term’ used for non-specific radiating pain anywhere down the back of the leg. Unfortunately it could be a number of different factors creating the pain and therefore there are a lot of factors to consider. Firstly, because there could be a number of causes, it’s important to stress that anyone experiencing sciatica should seek the help of a medical professional to get a full assessment.”
We ask our experts what remedies you may have overlooked if your sciatic nerve is acting up…
- Hot and cold packs
Using a combination of hot and cold packs can go a long way to help relieve the pain. A cold pack can reduce inflammation, which is associated with sciatic nerve pain, whilst heat helps to increase the blood flow to this area. Alternating both cold and heat can give positive results in reducing pain and inflammation. Roger Henderson, our resident GP, says:
”Initially, you might get relief from a cold pack placed on the painful area for up to 20 minutes several times a day. Use an ice pack or a package of frozen peas wrapped in a clean towel and do not apply for more than a few minutes. After two to three days, apply heat to the areas that hurt. Use hot packs, a heat lamp or a heating pad on the lowest setting. If you continue to have pain, try alternating warm and cold packs.”
- Try stretching
Stretching exercises for your lower back can help relieve nerve root compression, advises Roger. He says to avoid jerking, bouncing or twisting during the stretch, and try to hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds.
”You can do knee to chest stretch to help reduce the irritation of the sciatic nerve and improve flexibility of your lower back.”
- Lie on your back on a mat with your feet straight and hip-width apart.
- Keep your upper body relaxed and bend your right knee upwards with an inhale.
- Clasp your hands behind the thigh and gently pull it towards your chest as far as is comfortable.
- Keep the other leg flat on the surface.
- Hold this position for 20 seconds with controlled deep breaths and then lower your leg gently.
- Switch legs and repeat. Repeat 3 to 5 times.
- Finally do this exercise with both the legs 3 to 5 times. You can also do exercises like spinal rolling, knees rocking, floor twists, and back extensions.
James Farmer agrees that a simple piriformis stretch will often help ease any tension on the sciatic nerve and ease the sciatic pain. He says that if he knows the sciatica is not a result of a serious back injury, such as a disk prolapse, he will use a technique called neural flossing.
”Nerves don’t stretch, and they’re not a big fan of tension either. Nerves need to be able to slide and move freely without becoming ‘snagged’. This snagging of the sciatic nerve creates tension in the nerve, and this can often lead to sciatic pain. Neural flossing is a method by which you can mobilise the nerve and ease any tension placed on it. With neural flossing it’s important the nerve isn’t put under further tension. Instead, it is ‘flossed’.”
- Get a massage
A massage will not only relax the muscles in your back, it can help loosen muscles, tissues that are effected by the sciatic nerve, whilst also improving blood flow. Michele Pernetta, one of the UK’s leading yoga teachers and founder of Fierce Grace says oiling the body is incredible for nerve pain. She says:
”Use sesame oil or buy the Pukka “Mahanarayam oil” from a health food store, heat it and massage it in all over the body especially affected area and the soles of the feet. Or get an Ayurvedic massage from a trained practitioner.”
- The heat in hot yoga
A study in the journal Pain reported that people with chronic back pain who practiced Iyengar yoga for 16 weeks saw pain reduced by 64% and disability by 77%. The effect on sciatic pain is less clear, but Michele says that the heat in hot yoga can be good for it.
”Oil the body before and/or after, but do the modifications to not overstretch the hamstrings. Stop stretching your legs as this can aggravate sciatica. Stretch your lower back with your knees bent.”
- Take it easy
Don’t forget to take it easy, says Roger. But don’t simply lie in bed because this has been shown to actually worsen the condition.
”Do activities you are able to tolerate, and do not expect to feel better overnight.”