Sciatica – Five Things you Need to Know

If you’ve been experiencing intense pain or tingling in your legs and/or buttocks, you might be suffering with sciatica. But what causes it and, importantly, how can you ease the symptoms?

Causes of sciatica

Your sciatic nerve runs from the base of the spine, through the buttocks and down each leg to the feet. If the nerve becomes compressed or irritated for some reason, you will likely experience pain, numbness, or tingling, which is known as sciatica. There are several common reasons why compression or irritation of the nerve can occur. These include:

  • A slipped disc
  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal cord)
  • Back injury
  • Lifestyle causes (such as wearing high heels regularly, prolonged periods of sitting down or sleeping on a mattress that’s too soft)
  • Pregnancy

Symptoms of sciatica

Sciatica is often characterised by sensations including pain (sometimes intense, like an electric shock), tingling, burning and/or numbness in areas such as your lower back, thighs, lower leg, or foot. The pain you experience can be a stabbing or shooting sensation, and it may get worse if you perform actions such as coughing, sneezing, or lifting objects. In some cases, it can become difficult to bend your knee or lift your foot.

The image below is known as a slump test, and can bring on sciatic symptoms. If you try this and feel sciatica or shooting pain down your leg, it is a good sign that you have sciatica. Seek help from your Surrey Physio osteopath or physiotherapist.

Self-help treatments

While the pain associated with sciatica can be intense, the symptoms tend to resolve themselves within four to six weeks (although they can last longer). To help ease the pain and speed up recovery, there are some things you can do to help yourself. These include:

  • Attempting to continue your normal activities as much as possible (sitting down for extended periods will only serve to worsen the pain and lengthen recovery time.
  • Trying a little gentle exercise if you feel able.
  • Trying cold and heat compresses, applied to the site of pain for 20 minutes every couple of hours.
  • Asking your pharmacist about suggested painkillers if you are struggling to manage the pain.
  • When sleeping, placing a pillow between your knees (if on your side).
  • Ensuring your mattress is comfortable, not too soft, and not too hard.

Professional support

If your pain is severe or your symptoms aren’t easing after several weeks, see your GP for support. They may prescribe a muscle relaxant. In severe cases, surgery to relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve is an option.

Physiotherapy is also commonly used to help treat sciatica. Your physiotherapist will likely prescribe a bespoke programme of exercises to help ease your symptoms, depending on the level of pain you’re experiencing and also the underlying cause of your sciatica. Other techniques your physio may use could include ultrasound treatment, shockwave therapy and acupuncture.

How to prevent sciatica reoccurring

While sciatic pain is common, there are some preventative measures you can take, to help reduce the likelihood of it reoccurring. These include:

  • Reduce or avoid forward bending.
  • Avoiding being sedentary for extended periods of time.
  • Practising a regular strength and conditioning routine, to help improve your core and leg strength, as well as your flexibility.
  • Maintaining the correct posture when standing, walking, and sitting.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Stopping smoking.
  • When sitting, using a chair that offers good lumbar support.
  • Ensuring your mattress is comfortable, and if it’s not, get to a store like Dreams and try some different ones.
  • When lifting objects, practising correct lifting technique (bending at the knees, ensuring your back is straight and holding the object close to your body, to take the pressure off your back).