Updated November 10, 2020Approximately 80 percent of Americans experience back pain, with only half being privy to the unique pain of sciatica.Sciatica is a type of nerve pain that radiates from the low back into the lower extremities, sometimes all the way into the big toe. This amount of pain may catch you off guard, but it should never warrant panic.In this article, we will equip you with a handful of sciatica symptoms, causes, and conservative treatments so you feel prepared to appropriately manage your pain.Sciatica ExplainedThe sciatic nerve is formed from five nerve roots, located in the lumbar spine (low back) and sacrum (last portion of the spine). These roots merge into a single nerve that exits the pelvis, extends through the buttock, runs down the back of the legs, and ends at the big toe—explaining the radiating pain associated with sciatica.This radiating pain occurs when one or more of the five nerve roots in the lumbar spine or sacrum are compressed. Sciatica can range from mild to debilitating and tends to carry the following symptoms.Common Symptoms of SciaticaSciatica symptoms are often alarming. What begins as lower back pain, eventually sends shooting pains into your hips and down the back of your thigh. Still, this shouldn’t cause panic. Later, we will discuss conservative care options, but first, let’s take a look at a few telltale signs of sciatica.Low back painHip painLeg painMuscle weakness in the affected legBurning, tingling, or numbness in one leg or footJolts or feelings of electric shockConstant pain in one side of the buttockSome severe symptoms of sciatica warranting immediate medical attention are:Difficult moving affected leg or footLoss of feeling in the legLoss of bladder or bowel controlCommon Causes of SciaticaAs mentioned above, sciatica is the result of a compressed spinal nerve. Spinal nerves become compressed when they come in contact with a displaced spinal structure, such as an intervertebral disk or bone. These displaced spinal structures are typically caused by herniated disks or bone spurs.Herniated DiskIntervertebral disks rest between the vertebrae of our spine. Not only do spinal disks cushion our vertebra during impact, but they also protect the spinal nerve column. Disks are composed of two parts: a rigid outer layer and a gel-like interior.Over time, the protective exterior degenerates, creating a space for the gel-like substance to seep through. When the interior leaks from its intended spot, it places excess pressure on spinal nerves, potentially pinching them and causing painful symptoms of sciatica.Bone SpurBone spurs occur with age or injury and are usually the result of compromised ligaments near the joints. Sometimes fragile ligaments can no longer hold joints together, so the cartilage hardens and transforms into the bone in an attempt to protect the area. If this type of growth takes place in the lumbar spine or sacrum, it may push up against the nerve roots and cause sciatic nerve pain.Just because you have a bone spur or a herniated disc does not mean you’re destined to develop sciatica pain. While yes, sciatica pain does tend to develop as a result of these conditions, it sometimes does not develop at all. “Some people may have a herniated disk or bone spur they catch early and appropriately treat, and therefore, they never display symptoms of sciatica,” says Dr. Bhavik Sheth, Physical Therapist.DiagnosisDiagnosing sciatica can be difficult because other injuries, like piriformis syndrome (gluteal muscle disorder) and sacroiliac joint dysfunction (pelvis joint injury) possess similar symptoms.Healthcare providers typically perform a physical examination to diagnose sciatica on their patients, just to be sure. This may consist of walking on your heels and toes or rising from a squat. If the patient finds these activities painful, doctors conduct one of two tests that can be done at home: the slump and straight leg raising test. Here’s how.Slump TestThe slump test places pressure on your lower spine, further compressing the pinched nerve roots. Increased pain indicates a positive test result.Sit on the edge of a chair and clasp your hands behind your low back.Slump your shoulders to create a curve in your spine. In other words, display poor posture.Look down and tuck your chin in toward your neck.Extend one leg as far as possible.Dorsiflex your ankle. You can accomplish this by forcefully pointing the top of your foot toward your chest without using your hand.Now look up to the ceiling and see if the tightness in your leg changes.If looking up alleviates your pain, you most-likely have sciatica.Straight Leg Raising TestThis exam stretches your sciatic nerve and will intensify your pain if you have sciatica.Lie flat on your back with your legs straight out in front of you.Slowly lift one leg to approximately 30 to 70 degrees then repeat for the other leg. Make sure your glute and thigh muscles remain relaxed.If your lower back pain intensifies and radiates below one of your knees, you more than likely have sciatica. If you only feel pain in your low back or buttock, your symptoms are the result of another injury.Treatment for Sciatica PainConservative care, such as core strengthening, stretching, remaining active, and using cold and heat therapy seems to be the most effective ways to find relief. In rare cases, steroid injection or surgical intervention may be required. Let’s discuss the appropriate use and time for each treatment.StretchesSpecific stretches such as cobra pose and bridge pose are commonly recommended for sciatic nerve pain because they improve posture, increase back flexibility, and promote healthy spinal alignment.Bridge PoseThe is an extension-based stretch to decompress the spine.Lay down on your back, bend your knees, and keep your feet firmly planted on the floor. Then, place your arms at your side and press your palms to the ground. Take a 4-second breath in, and as you exhale, push your hips up toward the ceiling so your back lifts off the ground. This will look slightly like a backbend, but your arms will remain on the floor as your back arches.Keep your thighs parallel with the floor and your knees directly above your heels. Push you knees forward to stretch the spine and lengthen the tailbone.Lift your chin slightly and push your sternum into your chin as you stretch your chest toward the ceiling. Broaden the shoulder blades for a deeper stretch.Cobra PoseThis stretch will enhance the inward curve in your lower spine to loosen muscles and boost flexibility.Lie face down on the ground.Place your palms flat, directly beneath your shoulders. Your elbows should naturally bend to hug your sides.Fix your gaze down at the ground, keep your neck in a comfortable and neutral position, and ensure your hips bones are pressed firmly into the floor.Push through your palms to lift your chest off the floor.Keep your shoulders rolled back, and lower stomach, hips, thighs, shins, and feet pressed firmly into the ground.Staying ActiveIf you are experiencing severe pain, bed rest for one to two days is fine, but we recommend getting in some low-impact exercise as soon as you’re ready. Walking seems to be best for sciatica, but to prevent further injury be sure to maintain proper form. Proper form will look as follows:Lifted head and shouldersGaze fixed in the distanceComfortable and short stridesEngaged abdominal musclesNot only does exercise lower inflammation, but it also releases pain-fighting endorphins to alleviate sharp aches. Maintaining routine exercise, even after sciatica, will build the muscles supporting your spine and prevent future episodes of pain.Cold and Heat TherapyUsing cold and heat treatments in tandem will alleviate pain and speed up the healing process. For approximately 48 to 72 hours after experiencing symptoms, avoid heat therapy completely, but apply cold treatments three times a day for 15 to 20 minutes. Applying ice or frozen packs will relieve sharp pains while reducing inflammation.Once a majority of your pain and inflammation have subsided, you can begin applying heat. Heat treatments improve blood flow to promote healing and loosen stiff muscles, so you can return to your everyday activities sooner than later.Steroid InjectionSevere cases may call for a corticosteroid medicine. Corticosteroid medicine quickly diminishes inflammation to reduce debilitating pain. It is injected into the affected area using an epidural steroid shot. Although relief will only last a few months, it gives patients enough time to heal their injury using conservative treatment.Spinal SurgeryIn rare cases, surgery may be required. Surgical procedures are only recommended for patients experiencing serious symptoms like loss of strength or feeling in the affected leg and loss of bladder and bowel control.During surgery, an orthopedic surgeon will remove the disk material or bony growth pinching the nerve roots. After surgery, you may be referred to a physical therapist who will teach you to strengthen the muscles supporting your spine. This will curb recurring episodes of sciatica pain.FAQHow do you permanently cure sciatic nerve pain?Most cases of sciatica are caused by disk herniation, and more often than not, herniated disks are healed with stretching and low-impact exercise. However, some people experience multiple herniated disks or bone spurs and develop chronic pain.While spinal decompression or surgery may do the trick to cure existing sciatica nerve pain, there is no guarantee additional injuries won’t occur and cause sciatica. Chronic symptoms are best treated with conservative care revolving around physical activity and at-home pain management.Can I sleep on my side with sciatica?The best way to sleep with sciatica pain is on your back with pillows beneath your knees. This position preserves spinal alignment while relieving any pressure your lower body places on the low back. However, you can also sleep on your side. Just be sure to place pillows between your knees to prevent your hips and legs from straining the affected nerve roots in your lower back. You may also consider placing a body pillow behind you to ensure you do not twist your back into an unhealthy position while asleep.How do you treat chronic sciatica pain?Chronic sciatica tends to be less painful than acute episodes. This is because anyone suffering from chronic sciatica has learned to manage it. If you develop chronic pain we suggest regularly exercising, practicing good posture, cutting inflammatory foods, and avoiding sitting or standing for too long.Additionally, nerve pain tends to flare at night, so you may consider a mattress for back pain. An unsupportive bed will not provide pressure relief and compromise the neutral position of your spine, potentially inducing an episode of sciatica.What happens if sciatica is left untreated?When the sciatic nerve becomes damaged, it creates numbness and weakness in the affected leg. If left untreated, these symptoms may become permanent or lead to loss of bladder and bowel control. If you find your conservative treatment is not working and your pain intensifies, immediately contact your doctor.Why is sciatica so painful?Sciatica affects our lower back, hips, and legs. These body parts bear the brunt of most movement and we heavily rely on them every day, making sciatica one of the most painful types of low back pain. Other forms of back pain are also frustrating but are typically the result of an injured muscle that can be easily stabilized.ConclusionWhen sciatica strikes, don’t distress. Find comfort in knowing, most cases of sciatica last 4 to 8 weeks, with a significant reduction in pain after the first week of treatment. Patiently managing your pain, stretching, and practicing low-impact exercise should do the trick.If your pain is only aggravated by self-care measures, seek the advice of your healthcare provider who can assist you in creating a more effective treatment plan, or take additional measures to alleviate your pain. Regardless, sciatica is not an unmanageable condition. Remain positive and you will return to a pain-free routine in no time.This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional. Comments Cancel replyLeave a CommentYour email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * Comment Name Email I agree to the Terms and Conditions of this website.