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Sciatica affects 40% of people in the course of their lifetime. In fact, it is one of the most common reasons why people seek medical attention in the United States and around the world.
In this article, we will discuss what sciatica is, what causes sciatic nerve pain, the most common signs and symptoms, what causes sciatica to flare up and risk factors, as well as the best natural treatment for Sciatica.
Sciatica, also termed as Sciatic Nerve Pain, is a condition that involves the compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve that extends from the back of your pelvis, all the way through your buttocks, and down to your leg.
If you have a mild ache or sharp pain that radiates from your spine through your buttocks which runs down to the back of your leg, you may be experiencing sciatica. Although pain can vary widely, sciatica can be the main culprit.
Now that you have answers to the question “what is sciatica,” the next thing that we will discuss is what causes sciatic nerve pain. And for us to easily determine the causes and risk factors, let us review the basic human anatomy.
The human spine consists of thirty-three bones that are stacked on top of the other, which form the vertebra. Nerve fibers run along the spine, bridging the gap between the brain to each part of the body. These nerve fibers serve as conduct signals and transmit messages between bodily systems.
The 33 bones of the spine are held and connected by the spinal discs, also known as intervertebral discs. Their function is to allow the spinal column to be flexible. Inside these discs are substances that have a gel-like texture. An injury to the intervertebral disc can damage the discs’ outer shell, causing the soft gel-like material to bulge out. This bulging condition is known as a slipped disc or herniated disc.
A herniated disc may then impinge or compress a nerve, which can cause pain around the area of the affected disc. Research suggests that nerve impingement due to slipped disc is the most common reason for sciatica.
So, what are the most common signs and symptoms of sciatica? And what are the most common sciatica risk factors?
Here are the most common signs and symptoms of sciatic nerve pain:
Sciatic nerve pain can range from being mild to very painful. Some people also experience mild ache at the lower back while others experience a burning sensation or sharp pain on one side of the lower extremity. In some cases, patients may experience excruciating pain, depending on the severity of nerve impingement or irritation.
These symptoms occur as a result of the exerted pressure on the sciatic nerves secondary to nerve compression. When the nerve gets pinched or compressed, it disrupts the nerve function, thereby causing a tingling sensation, weakness, or numbness on the affected part.
Some patients report a sensation of jolt or electric shock in the lower back or legs. It is often aggravated and becomes worse when sneezing, coughing, or sitting for long periods.
Individuals with sciatica may find it difficult to walk, stand or sit in due to the pain and other neurological manifestations of sciatica such as weakness or numbness of the lower extremities.
The signs and symptoms listed above may manifest for a couple of weeks or may last for many years. However, it is essential to note that not everyone will experience the same sciatica symptoms because causes of sciatica may differ from one person to another.
Sciatica triggers can be different for each person. Some people also find that they have multiple causes of flare-ups. Knowing what triggers sciatic nerve pain is crucial because it will help a lot in preventing and managing them. For that reason, you should be aware of any triggers that you may have. If you can identify what causes sciatica to flare up, you’ll know what you can do to avoid them.
Here are the ten triggers that may be causing your sciatica to flare up that you need to watch out for:
According to the Institute for Chronic Pain, Sciatica can be exacerbated by stress or emotional anxiety. The explanation is that during stressful times, the brain deprives the nerves, including the sciatic, of oxygen, resulting in symptoms of sciatic nerve pain.
Poor posture and improper body alignment can put extra stress on the lower back and sciatic nerve. When the nerve gets irritated, signs and symptoms of sciatica become apparent.
Several patients with sciatica claim that tight clothes such as blue jeans and undergarments with ill-fitting elastic bands can trigger flare-ups. This kind of clothing puts additional pressure on the sciatic nerve, enough to trigger a flare-up.
Sitting for extended periods with hard objects at the back pocket like keys, wallet, cell phone, or any hard object can aggravate the piriformis muscle under which, the sciatic nerve is situated. This pressure on the nerve can cause impingement and ensuing pain.
Wearing high-heeled shoes shifts your body weight and the center of gravity, forcing you to hunch forward at the hips. On the other hand, footwear without cushioned insoles contributes to transferring the impact of steps to the hips or back. These events can lead to stretching of the hip and the knee muscles (called the hamstring muscles) alongside the sciatic nerve, resulting in irritation and compression.
Studies say that there is a connection between being overweight and back pain. It states that if you weigh more, there is a greater chance that you will exert additional pressure on the sciatic nerve. That is why keeping weight under control can go a long way in decreasing the risk of sciatic nerve pain.
Whether you are carrying groceries to your kitchen from your car, picking up your child from the bed, or moving flowerpots in your garden, you are placing large amounts of workload on your lumbar discs. When your lumbar discs are overworked, there is an increased risk for developing herniated discs. This, in turn, can compress or irritate the sciatic nerve.
According to Mayoclinic.org, those who have a sedentary lifestyle or those who sit uninterrupted for extended periods are more likely to experience sciatica than those who regularly exercise. Prolonged sitting can cause intervertebral disc damage, which contributes to possible nerve compression and irritation.
In women, sciatica can occur secondary to a condition called piriformis syndrome. Piriformis syndrome is a condition that develops when the piriformis muscle, located at the buttocks area, spasms and compresses the sciatic nerve. It often develops during pregnancy as a result of irritation and pressure on the nerve from the developing fetus. How? This is what happens, the added weight of the growing baby causes the pelvis begins to shift forward, thereby causing the piriformis muscle to tighten and compress the sciatic nerve.
Stress can be a trigger for any kind of pain, including sciatica. According to Dr. John Sarno, a Physician at the New York University Medical Center and Clinical Rehabilitation Medicine Professor at New York University School of Medicine, bodily pain can be a result of repressed emotions and stress.
Sciatica and Dr. Sarno’s study on mind-body pain became topics of interest for people who suffer pain in their the lumbar area, buttocks, legs, and feet. For years, he has been advocating a different approach to determining the cause and managing back pain that is associated with emotions rather than those that are picked up through MRI scans or verified using a diagnostic injection.
Needless to say, not all medical professionals have been supportive of his straightforward yet patient-centric way on diagnosing and treating back pains.
People with Sciatica always ask, “Can sciatica be cured?” The answer is, typically, with the appropriate treatment method, you may be able to consider sciatica pain an afterthought. Sciatica pain is a treatable condition, no matter how challenging it may seem.
Physicians can help you determine the cause of sciatica, and from there, you may be able to look into various forms of treatment programs. Most people respond well to natural treatment methods, depending on the probable cause of sciatic nerve compression and are symptom-free after a few treatment sessions. So, instead of living with sciatica pain, give some treatments a try.
Treatment for Sciatica begins with self-care and non-invasive therapies. The goal for treatment is to improve the function, avoid provoking factors, correct the problem, and prevent re-injury.
Over the last few years, experts say that exercise improves health at the cellular level. Many people say that it is effective, as it aids in pain modulation either by itself or in conjunction with other treatment therapies. Exercise loosens tight muscles and bones that might be impeding the sciatic nerve, thereby causing pain and other symptoms of sciatica.
If you are too busy to do extended periods of exercise, here is a video about One Minute Sciatica Exercises for Quick Pain Relief & Cure of Sciatic Pain:
While exercise can be helpful for any kind of pain, ‘caution’ should be kept in mind. So before beginning any exercise, please seek advice from your primary caregiver.
According to MayoClinic.com, hot and cold packs can provide adequate pain relief. Although each effect of the two therapies may differ from one another, they both work at a deeper level.
Ice alleviate pain by reducing inflammation or swelling that compresses the sciatic nerve. On the other hand, heat packs can be useful in relaxing the tight muscles on the lower back. If you are not sure when to use cold packs or hot compress, read this article on Ice and Heat therapy for lower back pain.
DBE, short for Deep Breathing Exercises can induce alpha brain waves which calm the brain’s stress response system resulting in low anxiety levels and stress. This type of brain waves also stimulates the release of beta-endorphins or brain chemicals that work as natural pain relievers.
Sciatica may seem difficult to treat, but many sufferers benefit from a little bit of stretching and yoga. Yoga can soothe and reduce flare-ups by strengthening the back. Back strengthening improves flexibility and helps relieve the compression on the nerve root.
Research suggests that an incorrect posture can lead to a lot of back problems, including sciatica. Sciatica occurs when anything is impinging the sciatic nerve, and if you have poor posture, the misalignment of the bones or muscles can put up pressure on the sciatic nerves. If you have poor posture, you can use posture correctors, and lumbar back supports such as pictured below to prevent further misalignment of the spine or muscles from creating a much better pathway for your sciatic nerve.
In some cases, Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) can be helpful as well. It is a widely used relaxation technique that aims to reduce muscle tension exacerbated by psychological stress.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or (CBT) is a non-pharmacological form of treatment started by Dr. Aaron Beck a few couples of years ago. This therapy is useful as it helps patients to reduce pain by harnessing the power of thoughts and behaviors. CBT sessions are available for individuals or as a group. It can also prevent acute back pain from progressing to chronic injury.
Sciatica treatment plans and methods may vary from patient to patient. Some may benefit more from exercise, but others may not. Treatment therapy can only be effective if you know the underlying cause of your sciatica.
If you have no idea what causes your sciatica, discuss possible diagnostic or assessment procedures with a doctor to fully understand the causes, symptoms, complications, and appropriate treatment modalities for your Sciatica.