Sciatica: Your Questions Answered
Sciatica is one of the most common types of back pain, thought to affect about 40% of adults at some point in life. Here’s everything you need to know about it.
What is Sciatica?
Sciatica is the name for pain that follows the path of your sciatic nerve. This is the longest, thickest nerve in your body (almost as wide as your finger). It starts in your lower back and runs through your hips and down each leg.
What does sciatica feel like?
If you have sciatica, you may feel mild to severe pain anywhere along the nerve, though it’s most likely to be in your lower back, buttocks and the back of your legs.
The pain may be constant or it may come and go. It may feel worse when you sit or stand for a long period of time.
Sciatica can also cause muscle weakness, numbness or pins and needles in your legs and feet.
What triggers sciatica?
Sciatica happens when your sciatic nerve is pinched, compressed or damaged by:
- A herniated disc in your spine
- A bony spur on your vertebrae
- A tumour (in rare cases)
- Diabetes-related nerve damage.
Pregnancy often causes back pain but only occasionally causes sciatica, usually when your baby’s position is pressing on the sciatic nerve.
How do you treat sciatica?
In most cases, sciatica is treated at home with:
- Heat packs on the sore area
- Over-the-counter pain medicine
- Exercises and stretches.
Physiotherapy is commonly used to strengthen your back muscles and improve your posture and flexibility.
Your doctor may also prescribe medication to manage pain and inflammation.
In more severe cases, your doctor may recommend steroid injections to reduce inflammation around your nerve root.
Surgery may be recommended in very severe cases if you’re dealing with:
- Significant weakness
- Worsening pain
- Failure of other treatments.
Surgery aims to relieve the pressure on your sciatic nerve by removing the bone spur or the part of a herniated disc that’s pressing on it.
How does physiotherapy help sciatica?
Stretching your hamstrings, glutes and back can help ease sciatic pain and improve your strength and flexibility.
Here are three good stretches to ease sciatica:
- Lie on your back, bend both knees and pull one towards your chest. Hold for 5-10 seconds then repeat on the other side. Aim for 5-10 stretches on each leg.
- Lie on your back and pull both knees to your chest then hold for 5-10 seconds. Rest and repeat 5-10 times.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and flatten your lower back to the floor for 5-10 seconds. Rest and repeat 5-10 times.
Aim to do these stretches every day.
Which exercises should you avoid with sciatica?
It’s best to avoid high-impact activities that jar your spine. So it’s best to avoid running, jumping and anything else that puts extra pressure on your joints.
How do you keep fit with sciatica?
Staying fit is important if you have sciatica. Regular exercise helps to improve your muscles, joints and spinal discs, reducing pressure on your sciatic nerve.
You can keep fit with sciatica by:
- Walking through water for greater resistance
- Tai chi or yoga
- Using an elliptical machine.
How long does sciatica last?
Sciatica varies considerably depending on its underlying cause. It can be an acute (short-term) problem or a chronic (long-lasting one).
It can start suddenly (as a result of a herniated disc) or develop gradually (as a result of worsening arthritis, for example).
Acute sciatica may last a few weeks, with flare-ups happening over the following months for a while.
Chronic sciatica may never go away, though it’s often less painful than an acute episode. It becomes something you learn to live with, building stretches and other exercises into your daily routine and learning to adjust your posture or activity when you can feel your sciatica worsening.
Can you prevent sciatica?
There are some things you can do to prevent sciatica such as:
- Improving your posture so your body is properly aligned most of the time
- Maintaining a healthy weight to put less pressure on your spine
- Strengthening your core muscles in your lower back and abdomen so they can support your spine more effectively
- Doing regular low-impact exercise to stay fit without jarring your back
- Not smoking as this reduces blood supply and weakens your spine & vertebral discs.
Can you cure sciatica permanently?
The vast majority of people with sciatica recover without surgery. About half the people with sciatica make a full recovery within about 6 weeks or a little longer.
So, give it time for self-care and physio to work. If things are not improving, your doctor or physio can advise you on the next steps.
How can The Brisbane Spine Clinic help?
Here at The Brisbane Spine Clinic, we’ve helped many people with sciatica to ease pain, improve symptoms and prevent flare-ups.
We start by listening as you describe your symptoms and examining you carefully to rule out other causes of lower back pain. Then we recommend a program of stretches and exercises to strengthen your body and relieve pressure on your sciatic nerve.
Please make an appointment today.
All information is general in nature. Patients should consider their own personal circumstances and seek a second opinion.