What Are the Causes of Sciatica And How To Alleviate Pain?
The human body consists of billions of nerves, the longest of which is the sciatic nerve. It begins at the lower back (along the 4th and 5th lumbar vertebra) and moves into either side of the butt and hips and into the thighs. From there, the nerve then branches all the way down both legs to the feet. Like all other nerves, the sciatic nerve can get damaged, irritated or compressed. When this happens, pain that follows the entire path of the sciatic nerve is experienced. This pain is referred to as sciatica.
Sciatic pain can take on many forms from a dull ache to a sharp, burning, or shooting discomfort that comes and goes. In some instances, a numb or tingling sensation may be felt along the lower back, buttocks, legs, feet, and toes. Muscle weakness along the affected leg is also a common symptom of sciatica.
Sciatica can be caused by any inward or outward factor that irritates or stresses the sciatic nerve. Below is a look at some of the common factors that are known to trigger sciatic pain.
Herniated Disc or Bulging Disc
The spine consists of discs (layers of cartilage) that sit beneath each individual bone of the spinal column. Each disc is comprised of a tough outer layer that surrounds a softer inner layer of cartilage. The discs help maintain the back’s flexibility, promote a wide range of movement, and absorb the shock/strain, which the spine is subjected to on a daily basis.
When a disc near the sciatic nerve slips out of place, it can press on the nerve and cause pain. This is usually referred to as a bulging disc. A herniated disc on the other hand occurs when excessive strain or injury causes a tear in the tough outer cartilage layer. The tear allows some of the inner soft cartilage to pass though and push into the sciatic nerve thereby causing pain.
In some instances, sciatica can be caused by internal factors that cause damage to the spine. Some of the common spinal-related medical conditions that cause sciatic pain include:
- Spinal stenosis – a condition that results in the narrowing of the spinal canal which in turn puts pressure on surrounding nerves including the sciatic nerve.
- Spondylolisthesis – occurs when one vertebrae slips out of place causing a misalignment with the one next to it. When this happens, the misplaced vertebra pinches the sciatic nerve thus causing pain.
- Degenerative disc disease – breakdown or weakening of discs brought on by daily wear and tear. This disease puts one at a higher risk of suffering disc damage.
- Cauda equina syndrome – a rare and serious condition that attacks the nerves on the lower part of the spinal cord.
While injured/displaced discs and spinal diseases are the most common triggers of sciatica, they are not the only causes. There are a few other less common conditions that are known to cause sciatica. Some of those conditions include:
- Spinal tumors that press into the sciatic nerve
- Spinal infection or injury that causes compression of the sciatic nerve
- Pregnancy – extra weight of the developing fetus and any gained weight can put pressure on the back causing the sciatic nerve to get irritated
- Muscle spasms in the back or butt – These are usually caused by condition referred to as Piriformis syndrome
Although sciatica sounds like a serious condition, in most cases, the pain will go away within a few weeks even if no treatment is applied. Unfortunately, one has to put up with the pain (and any other symptoms) that comes with sciatica as the spine works on repairing itself. Sometimes the pain can get so bad that sitting or standing becomes almost impossible. What’s worse, activities like coughing, sneezing, and sitting for too long can cause the pain to intensify. Luckily, there are a few things that can be done to reduce severity of symptoms. A combination of painkillers, mild exercises, and hot or cold packs have been proven to alleviate sciatica symptoms. If any of these remedies do not offer relief, it is best to see a doctor.
4 Exercises to Help with Sciatica Pain
Sciatica pain can be caused by a number of things, such as a ruptured disc, narrowing of the spinal canal or a back injury. To better understand sciatica pain, let’s look at the sciatica nerve itself. It runs down the length of the spine and branches off at each vertebra. The pain can feel like sharp shocks running down your leg or just a nagging lower back pain. In the case of leg pain, usually only one leg is affected. Exercises that rotate the hips in some way usually provide relief. The Reclining Pigeon Pose and Sitting Pose both do just this – rotate the hips.
Reclining Pigeon Pose
Start by lying on the floor on your back. Bring up your right leg bent at the knee using your hands behind the knee to help bring it toward you. Now bend it to the left and bring your left leg up so that it contacts your bent leg. Using your left leg, push the bent leg further forward toward your head and hold for a second or two. Switch legs and repeat the exercise.
Sit on the floor with your legs outstretched in front of you. Now bend your right leg and cross it over your left leg so that your right ankle is just above and to the outside of your left knee. Lean forward toward your crossed leg and attempt to touch your upper body to your leg. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, Repeat with the other leg.
Sitting Spinal Stretch
Sometimes sciatica pain is caused by compressed vertebrae. This exercises helps decompress and create some space in between them. Start out the same as in the Sitting Pose. Cross your right leg over your left so that your right ankle is on the outside of your left knee. Now rotate your upper body to the right and hold for 30 seconds. Repeat three times before switching sides.
Knee to Opposite Shoulder
Tight gluteal or piriformis muscles pressing against the sciatic nerve can be a source of back pain. A simple stretch can sometimes loosen them up enough to relieve the pain.
Start by laying on your back on the floor with your legs outstretched in front of you. With your hands clasped around your right leg just below your knee, pull your right leg across your body to the left toward your left shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds before returning back to the starting position and switching legs.
Number of Repetitions
The duration of hold is noted for each exercise, but as far a number of repetitions, try to do at least three repetitions of each exercise for each leg. Once you can routinely do three, try to do more.
By rotating through these exercises, you should find one or more that provide some relief. While all of these exercises are good for your back, focus on the one(s) you find help relieve your sciatica pain the most.