Sciatica is a type of nerve pain characterized by pain radiating from your lower spine, down your buttocks and the backs of your legs.1 Your sciatic nerve is the largest and longest nerve in your body and is a collection of nerve roots from lumbar segment 4 (L4) to sacral segment 3 (S3) which runs from the back, down the backs of your legs all the way to your toes. At its largest point, the sciatic nerve is about as thick as the average person’s thumb. The sciatic nerve is responsible for providing the legs with sensation, strength, and reflexes. Sciatic nerve problems can cause weakness or numbness in your leg muscles or a tingling sensation in your legs, ankles, feet, and toes.2
Sciatica is most commonly caused by pinching or compressing the sciatic nerve, usually from a herniated disc or bone spur pressing against the nerve root. These nerve roots, which exit your spine and form your sciatic nerve, are highly sensitive. The proteins within a herniated disc are inflammatory and irritating to the nerve root, which can radiate pain to the rest of the sciatic nerve.3 Sciatic can also be caused by spinal stenosis, a condition wherein the holes in the spine through which the nerves pass through narrow, pinching the nerves and causing irritation.4 In rare cases, the sciatic nerve may sustain damage from a disease (like diabetes) or get compressed by a tumor.
The pain that comes with sciatica can be severe, but the good news is that most cases resolve within a few weeks through self-care measures. Thankfully, even if the pain doesn’t go away on its own, you can easily find effective remedies to reduce your pain and discomfort. Let’s take a look at the top five sciatica pain relief remedies.
Common Medical Treatments for Sciatica
Your doctor may prescribe certain medications or treatments to help you manage sciatic pain. Common oral medications include:
- Over-the-counter nonnarcotic analgesics, including aspirin, acetaminophen, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Prescription muscle relaxants to reduce muscle spasms
- Antidepressants for lower back pain
- Steroids (glucocorticoid) injections, which may have a modest effect on irritation caused by a herniated disc5
Surgery is usually only reserved for forms of sciatica that cause significant muscle weakness, loss of bladder or bowel control, or pain that doesn’t get better from other medication or therapies. Surgery often involves removing the bone spur or part of the herniated pressing against the sciatic nerve.6
Natural Remedies and Lifestyle Changes for Sciatica
Assuming your sciatica is not caused by an underlying condition or anatomical abnormality, it’s often a good idea to combine prescription or over-the-counter pain management medications with natural remedies or changes to your lifestyle.
1. Avoid Bed Rest
While bed rest might seem like the best option, one study found no benefits to bed rest for sciatica and low back pain.13 Prolonged inactivity can actually make your pain worse. Exercise and activity keep your back muscles and spinal structure strong and conditioned to support spine. Movement also encourages the flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients to your injured nerve tissue and discs, keeping them healthy and reducing inflammation. You should by all means rest the first few days after being diagnosed with sciatica, but staying in bed too long will only weaken your muscles, making you more susceptible to back strains and other injuries.
2. Perform Exercises and Physical Therapy for Sciatica
Your physical therapist should provide more specific instructions, but most exercises will focus on your core. Strengthening your lower back muscles and supporting muscles will reduce weakness and instability that sciatica worse. Exercises that your therapist may have you do include:
- Back hyperextensions to strengthen your lower back muscles
- Crunches and sit-ups to strengthen your abdominal muscles
- One legged squats to strengthen your gluteal muscles
3. Stretch your Piriformis Muscle
Piriformis syndrome, known as "the great mimicker" is can often present with pain in the same pattern as sciatica. This is because the sciatic nerve can run through or inferior to the piriformis muscle, depending on your anatomy. A tight piriformis muscle can irritate and inflame the nerve. Thankfully, piriformis syndrome is easily treated with piriformis stretches.7
4. Avoid Provoking Your Sciatica
Small things in your life can provoke your sciatica, making the pain and condition worse. While it’s important to exercise, make sure you perform the exercises correctly to avoid doing further harm while getting the most out of your physical activity. A controlled, gradual aerobic exercise is the key to relieving sciatica symptoms. Running jars the spine, which can pinch or aggravate your sciatic nerve even more. Instead, consider using a low-impact elliptical machine.
Women should avoid wearing high heels, which can shift your weight forward and disrupt the natural curve of your spine, putting even more stress on your lower back.8
For men, sitting on an excessively thick wallet can also provoke your sciatica. Uneven seating will increase the imbalance in your spine and puts more pressure on your lumbar discs. Switch to a money clip or slimmer wallet or simply place your wallet in a different pocket if you plan to sit down.9
5. Add Anti-Inflammatory Superfoods to your Diet for Sciatica
Certain foods can help to reduce the inflammation around your sciatic nerve to reduce pain and expedite your healing. Some effective anti-inflammatory foods include:
- Fish oil – Fish oil is rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, two essential fatty acids that your body can’t synthesize on its own. Studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation and assist with certain diseases caused by inflammation, including rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.10
- Turmeric – Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has been shown to possess potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.11
- Green tea – Green tea is packed with antioxidants, nutrients, and bioactive compounds that can help promote good health. Green tea offers a rich amount of polyphenols that can help to reduce inflammation and improve your health.12
Other anti-inflammatory Superfoods: You may also want to read more on our comprehensive anti-inflammatory herbs HERE.
Most cases of sciatica resolve within a few weeks but with the right foods, exercises, and self-care, you can help expedite that process.