Pain starting in your lower back that runs down your leg may be sciatica. Pressure or damage to the sciatic nerve can cause radiating pain in your lower body. Let’s learn more about this nerve and how to ease sciatic nerve pain.
The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body. It begins in the lower back and extends to the heel of the foot, connecting the muscles in the back of the knee and the lower leg. If the nerve is injured or compressed, it can cause pain or a burning sensation throughout the area.
The medical term for sciatic nerve pain is sciatica. It is considered a symptom of a medical condition that causes irritation or damage to the nerve.
How do I know if I have sciatica?
Sciatic nerve pain can vary but is usually felt in areas from the lower back to the feet. You may feel a sharp pain in the leg or hip or have discomfort in your calf or the soles of your feet. You may also experience numbness or a burning sensation.
Sometimes the pain is so severe that it is difficult to walk. The pain may start gradually and worsen when bending backward or sideways, after standing or sitting for a prolonged period or flare up at night.
What causes sciatic nerve pain?
Sciatica occurs when there is too much pressure on the nerve. It is commonly known as a pinched nerve. The compression on the nerve is usually from surrounding bones, cartilage, muscles or tendons.
When the sciatic nerve is compressed, it becomes inflamed, sensitive and painful. The pinched nerve can have several causes. Here are a few common causes of sciatic nerve pain:
The most frequent cause of sciatica is a herniated disc in the spine, which causes the disc to compress on the nerves.
When the space in the spine becomes too narrow, it causes pressure on the sciatic nerve. It is often a result of osteoarthritis.
Often affecting the lumbar spine, this disorder is when one vertebra slips forward on another, and the nerves in the area are compressed.
The impact from trauma, such as a car accident or contact sports, can injure the nerves or the surrounding bones. If you have broken or splintered bones, the fragments press against the sciatic nerve.
Other conditions like diabetes or pregnancy can also cause sciatic nerve pain. Rarely a spinal tumor can compress the nerves and cause pain.
How to ease sciatic nerve pain
Since sciatic nerve pain is a symptom of another condition, please see a doctor for a medical diagnosis to address the underlying condition.
In many cases, sciatica will subside as your body heals. While you are recovering, your doctor may recommend a few options for finding relief.
Depending on the severity of the pain, your doctor may recommend one of the following for pain and inflammation.
- Over the counter pain relief such as acetaminophen, NSAIDs or ibuprofen
- Prescription muscle relaxers to ease spasms
- Antidepressants for chronic pain
- Corticosteroids like prednisone to reduce inflammation
Physical therapy can help strengthen muscles in the lower back, abdomen and legs to reduce muscle spasms and improve mobility. You may be prescribed one or more of the following treatments:
- Graston technique, which uses tools to perform a deep tissue massage in the affected area
- Dry needling to stimulate blood flow to decrease stiffness associated with sciatica
- Soft tissue mobilization uses touch to apply pressure to an area to alleviate pain
- Therapeutic exercise to improve strength and flexibility
Injections reduce inflammation from conditions that cause sciatica. They can also alleviate pain so a patient can participate in physical therapy. Cortisone or steroid injections are the most common orthopaedic injections for sciatica.
Your doctor may recommend another non-surgical option to help with symptoms of a condition like osteoarthritis or spine conditions causing sciatica nerve pain.
You can manage pain from sciatica with changes to your lifestyle that will also improve your overall health.
- Practice good posture
- Exercise a few times a week with plenty of stretching exercises to reduce muscle tension
- Avoid sitting for long periods to reduce compression on the nerve
- Wear comfortable shoes that support your feet and lower back
- Use an ice pack for immediate relief and to combat inflammation
- Try heat therapy after using cold therapy to continue promoting pain relief
- Epsom salt baths to help with aching muscles and lower back pain
What if my sciatic nerve pain worsens?
If your pain worsens, talk to your doctor about your options. You may be a candidate for additional treatments for people with lumbar spine conditions. The condition causing your sciatic nerve pain may have progressed, and you may need minimally invasive surgery or more complex spine surgery to correct the condition.
Raleigh and Cary Orthopaedic doctors
Our orthopaedic doctors and physical therapists understand how sciatic nerve pain can interfere with your daily life. Call us today to schedule an appointment to discuss your treatment options. We also accept patient referrals from your primary care physician.