Sciatica Symptoms, Treatment Options, and Everything Else You Should Know
Not-so-fun fact —
A whopping 40% of people will develop sciatica symptoms at least once in their lifetime.
If you’re experiencing anything from throbbing pain in your lower spine to shooting pain in the legs, you may have sciatica.
In most cases, sciatica symptoms are not serious and will resolve within a few weeks if properly addressed. In fact, sciatica is not technically considered a condition at all. Rather, it refers to the specific pain caused by a pinch, pressure, or injury to the sciatic nerve.
The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body, beginning in the lower spine and extending all the way to the feet. When the sciatic nerve becomes pinched or compressed, the resulting sensation can range from mild discomfort to high-level pain.
The good news is that sciatica is highly treatable, both with at-home solutions and professional intervention. Surgical treatment is only necessary in rare cases.
If you think you may have sciatica, you’ll want to address the problem head on—but, know that there’s no cause for alarm.
We’ll tell you everything you need to know about sciatica, including the underlying causes and symptoms, and how you can get help for your sciatic nerve pain today.
What is Sciatica?
Sciatica is not a disease, nor is it technically considered a medical condition. The term simply refers to pain that occurs along the nerve site which stretches from the lumbar spine through the hips and down to the feet.
Pain at any point along the sciatic nerve may indicate you’ve developed sciatica. More often than not, the pain is described as a shooting sensation, usually beginning at the lower spine or top of the hips and radiating downward.
In most cases, sciatica will only affect one side of the body. Sciatica is usually caused by a herniated or slipped disk that pinches the nerve. The result is pain, inflammation, and even numbness in the extremities.
How is Sciatica Different from Lower Back Pain?
Sciatica is a symptom of injury to the sciatic nerve. Unlike conditions like chronic lower back pain, the sensation caused by sciatica is characterized by a distinct shooting sensations. It can feel like a pulse or electric current of pain that travels downward along the nerve itself.
Because the sciatic nerve affects such a large area of the body, sciatica can sometimes interfere with a person’s ability to function. Walking, sitting for long periods of time, and simple actions like taking the stairs can prove difficult, depending on the severity.
Sciatica can usually be resolved with nonsurgical treatments. Sciatica symptoms, even when they are more intense, will usually taper off in a few weeks, especially if proper steps are taken.
Do you think you might have sciatica? See if you have any of the tell-tale sciatica symptoms:
- Lower back pain
- Shooting pain that travels downward from the lower spine
- Buttock pain
- Groin pain
- Foot pain
- Calf pain
- Hip pain
- Tingling in feet/toes
- Weakness or numbness in the leg(s)
If you have sciatica, you can experience pain anywhere along the physical nerve. With sciatica leg pain, the majority only suffer symptoms on one side (usually the left leg).
Remember that sciatica’s major differentiation is the distinctive shooting sensation caused by the inflammation of the nerve. If you can identify this sensation, you probably have sciatica.
Sciatica Risk Factors
Sciatica affects all types of people across the world, but some are more likely to develop sciatic nerve pain than others. The following are risk factors that may make you more susceptible:
- Sedentary lifestyle: Sciatica doesn’t only affect couch potatoes. Those who sit at a desk for many hours each day are also part of this category.
- Obesity: If you are significantly overweight, your spine is under more pressure from excess fat, making a slipped disk more likely.
- Chronic back pain: Those already suffering from chronic back pain are more at risk for developing an injury to the sciatic nerve.
- Pregnancy: Because of rapid weight gain and the subsequent adjustment needed by the spine to carry the child, it’s common for pregnant women to develop sciatica.
- Smoking: Believe it or not, studies show that smoking increases the risk of sciatic nerve pain.
- Age: People over the age of 45 are more likely to develop spinal issues in general.
What Causes Sciatica?
By far and away, the most common cause of sciatica is a herniated disk in the lower spine. Also known as a displaced or slipped disk, it accounts for around 90% of all sciatica cases. However, there are a few other conditions that may contribute to the development of sciatica.
- Herniated disk: Trauma or injury can cause a disk to ‘slip’. In most cases, sitting or staying immobile for long periods (working at a desk) can cause a disk to rupture.
- Piriformis syndrome: This is a less-common condition caused by a dysfunctional piriformis muscle that can generate sciatic nerve pain.
- Pregnancy: As aforementioned in risk factors, the pressure placed on the spine by a rapidly growing baby can cause a herniated disk, triggering sciatica symptoms.
- Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis may sometimes injure the fibers of the sciatic nerve located on the lumbar spine.
- Lumbar spinal stenosis: In this condition, the spinal canal becomes narrow, pinching the sciatic nerve and causing inflammation and pain.
- Degenerative disk disease
What Causes a Sciatica Flare Up?
The sudden onset of sciatic nerve pain (also known as a sciatica flare up) appears immediately following an injury or trauma to the sciatic nerve. However, sciatica flare ups often have mysterious causes and can seem to come out of nowhere. If not due to an injury or trauma, sciatica flare ups may be the result of spinal disk degeneration (degenerative disk disease) or chronic misalignment.
Sciatica flare ups can be caused by:
- Posture issues
- Transition to a sedentary lifestyle
- Sports injuries
- Acute back injuries
- Nutrient deficiency
What makes sciatica worse?
Certain movements and actions can make your sciatica pain worse. Additionally, a diet high in processed foods and low in nutritious, inflammation fighters like greens and veggies can prolong your sciatica symptoms. If you think you may have sciatica, the following actions can make your pain worse:
- Standing up or sitting down quickly
- Coughing and sneezing
- Heavy lifting
- Bending backwards
- Hard bowel movements
- High-impact or jarring exercise
Obviously, you may not be able to avoid physical actions like laughing and coughing. However, you can minimize your sciatica symptoms by avoiding activities like heavy lifting and high-impact fitness activities like running or kickboxing. Slow down and practice intention with your movements to avoid increasing your pain level.
How to Relieve Sciatica Pain
Sciatica pain, especially when it compromises your ability to function, can be annoying and outright unbearable.
The good news is twofold —it usually will not last more than a few weeks, and there are plenty of sciatica treatment options out there to get you back on track. From DIY solutions like exercises and stretches to chiropractic care, you can be proactive about relieving sciatic pain.
If you work at a desk, adjust your posture or stand up to stretch every 20 minutes or so to help alleviate your symptoms. Pregnant women especially will also benefit from regular stretching and changing positions while sitting and laying in bed.
OTC pain relievers like aspirin and ibuprofen can provide temporary relief, but be sure not to exceed the recommended dosage per day. OTC meds can be harmful to your stomach and liver when taken over long periods of time or used improperly. Ask your doctor which pain reliever is right for you.
Light stretching of the lower back, using a heating pad and ice pack, and low-impact exercise like yoga and walking are also effective ways to relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve. It may seem counterintuitive, but movement for sciatica pain relief is actually a good thing! Just don’t overdo it. Avoid running and high-impact fitness activities like cross fit.
Finally, nutrition can go along way to help you feel better again. Nutrition-based solutions include switching to an anti-inflammatory diet and incorporating supplements that help aid inflammation. Turmeric and ginger are both well-known anti-inflammatory foods that you can incorporate into your diet or take in supplement form.
Sciatica Pain Treatment Options
Remember that sciatica is highly treatable! In most instances, you will not require any prescription medication or even medical intervention to help you reduce pain. Check out the following treatment options to see what works for you.
Effective at-home solutions are a great way to relieve pain caused by sciatica. If you’re more inclined to natural treatments, these may be your first go-to’s for relief:
Sciatica stretches: Simple, gentle stretching twice daily can really spell relief for sciatica sufferers. Here are six sciatica stretches to help you get started.
OTC pain relievers: Using an over-the-counter pain reliever is only a temporary option. Taking these medications around the clock can lead to liver damage and other health issues. Proceed with caution, and only take the amount recommended by the manufacturer and your doctor.
Moderate exercise: It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best things you can do for sciatic nerve pain relief is to get moving! Check out these exercises to get you started.
Yoga for sciatica: Because yoga combines stretching and exercise, it’s obviously a great way to help relieve sciatica pain. You can do your own practice at home and follow free videos or apps. If you attend a class, be sure to let the instructor know your symptoms.
Heat or ice for sciatica: Alternate a heating pad with cold packs as you would with any injury.
Nutritional supplements to strengthen joints: Glucosamine is known to help relieve joint pain and target inflammation. Ginger, turmeric, and CBD oil are other anti-inflammatory supplements that may help to relieve your sciatic nerve pain. As with any nutritional supplement, be sure to do your research.
Anti-inflammatory diet: An anti-inflammatory diet will not only help treat your sciatica, it will improve your overall health. A great start to this nutrition plan is to eliminate or decrease processed foods, drinks, and sugars. Next, eat more veggies and keep your meat intake to a minimum.
Does physical therapy help sciatica?
Physical therapy for sciatica can be an effective, conservative treatment route. Specialized physical therapy is proven to have favorable results on sciatica pain, and patients tend to appreciate the personalized approach. A trained, licensed physical therapist (PT) will usually lead you through both stretching and strengthening exercises, providing physical support and guidance along the way. Not everyone feels comfortable embarking on an exercise plan alone, especially if they are in severe pain from sciatica. Physical therapy is a great way to embark on a drug-free pain treatment for sciatic nerve pain with the support of a trained professional to prevent further injury.
Sciatica surgery is the least common solution for sciatic nerve pain and will only be recommended by a medical professional for an extreme case. Even with very severe cases of sciatica, invasive surgery is usually a last resort. If you experience severe sciatic nerve pain along with bowel and bladder changes, call you doctor immediately. These symptoms, along with extreme weakness in the legs, may point to surgical intervention. But again, these instances are relatively rare.
Chiropractic Care for Sciatica
Seeking chiropractic care for sciatica is another holistic, drug-free option that can put you on the fast track to sciatica pain relief.
In a recent, groundbreaking study on chiropractic care for sciatica, a double-blind experiment was conducted on 102 men and women with moderate-to-severe sciatic nerve pain. One group received spinal adjustments for treatment, and the control group received simulated adjustments. The people who received chiropractic care reported significantly less days with pain. For others, their pain totally subsided!
When it comes to sciatica lower back pain, researchers concluded that chiropractic care for sciatica provides a proven advantage.
Another benefit of seeking a chiropractor is that you do not need a referral. Unlike other medical specialists, you won’t have to waste time and money on an appointment with your general physician. Many chiropractors will also accept insurance.
Plus, chiropractors offer drug-free solutions that won’t leave you dependent on prescriptions or even OTC pain relievers than can become dangerous when used over time.
The best way to find a good chiropractor is through referrals. Ask around, and if you go the Google route, be sure to find a chiropractor with certifications at both a state and national level. Checking to see if they specialize in sciatica and perusing their reviews aren’t bad ideas, either.
Chiropractic Care for Sciatica: What to Expect
Step 1: Diagnosis
Even though sciatica symptoms will most often resolve quickly, getting a professional diagnosis is the first step to recovery.
Once you have found a chiropractor, explain your symptoms in detail. Especially if you are at risk for sciatica due to pregnancy, chronic back pain, obesity, or a sedentary lifestyle, be sure to thoroughly explain your lifestyle and activity level.
After an initial dialogue and discussion, your chiropractor will conduct a brief exam that will usually pinpoint the cause of your sciatica. From there, he or she will know which treatment plan is best for you.
Step 2: Treatment
After the exam to diagnose the root cause of your sciatica (which will most likely be a herniated disk), your chiropractor may employ one or more of these treatments to help you recover:
- Adjustments (spinal manipulations)
- Ultrasound therapy
- Hot/cold therapy
- Specialist recommendations (to acupuncturist or physical therapist)
As we mentioned earlier, the #1 cause of sciatica is a herniated disc. If your chiropractor determines there may be an underlying cause (like a tumor) that’s triggering your sciatic pain, he or she may refer you to a digital imaging facility. Some chiropractic facilities, like ours, offer in-house imaging.
But for the majority of sciatic pain sufferers, an experienced corrective chiropractor can provide significant relief. He or she will develop a comprehensive treatment plan to get you back on the road to wellness.
Spinal Adjustments for Sciatica
This is the most common treatment performed by a chiropractor to aid in the treatment of sciatica. When done correctly by an adept chiropractor, spinal adjustments (also known as spinal manipulations) are not painful. Since these mechanical maneuvers work to realign the spine, they are a near-perfect method to address a herniated disk.
By now, you should have a decent grasp as to what causes sciatica, what sciatica symptoms feel like, and if you are at risk.
If you believe you are suffering from sciatic nerve pain, don’t panic — the condition is common and you have a variety of treatment options. From stretching and yoga for sciatica to visiting your chiropractor, you can make sure your sciatic nerve pain doesn’t stick around for long.