Getting relief doesn’t have to be a pain in the back.
You’ve had backaches before, but this feels different. It’s a shooting pain from your lower back to your legs. No matter what position you’re in, the ache won’t seem to go away. Should you be worried?
Knowing the cause of the pain can help you decide what to do. One answer might be sciatica, a nerve condition that causes pain in your hips, buttocks and legs. The good news? You can find relief relatively easily, and there are many simple ways to treat it yourself.
What causes sciatica?
Sciatica shows up for a few different reasons. “A herniated disk or bone spur on the spine can cause sciatica,” says Amiel Wren Bethel, MD, a Geisinger neurosurgeon. “Another explanation is spinal stenosis, which happens along the spine when pressure is put on the spinal cord and nerves.”
In general, sciatica causes muscle pain, weakness, numbness and tingling. You may feel pain on one side of the body and numbness on the other. Sciatica usually only affects one leg at a time, but it can show up in both legs gradually or suddenly.
Treatment for sciatica
Fortunately, sciatica usually improves over time on its own. Over-the-counter pain medications can help with the pain, too. You can also talk to your doctor about physical therapy or acupuncture.
Ease pain and discomfort with these tips:
Gently stretch your muscles
If you need immediate relief, lying in bed probably won’t help. In fact, too much bed rest can make things worse. “Instead, try stretches and positions that reduce the pressure on the sciatic nerve,” says Dr. Bethel. “You’ll feel much better.”
Try these stretches for pain relief:
- Lying knee-to-hip stretch: Lie on your back and extend your legs. Raise a knee to your chest and hold it with your hands behind the knee. Pull the knee toward you until you feel a stretch in your hip and lower spine. Hold for a few seconds and repeat with the opposite leg.
- Kneeling hip stretch: Kneel with your hands and knees touching. Move a knee toward the opposite hand until you feel a pull in your thigh. Repeat with the opposite knee.
- Hamstring stretch: Sit on the ground with your leg straight in front of you and put your foot against a wall. Lean forward over that leg till you feel a pull in your lower back muscles. Repeat this stretch and then switch to the other leg.
- Back flexion stretch: Lie on your back. Pull your knees to your chest with both hands until you feel a stretch in your mid to lower back. You can bring your head forward for a further stretch. Hold for a few seconds and repeat.
Walking can also help, if you feel up to it.
Use ice and heat compression packs
Alternating cold and hot therapy can help relieve sciatica pain. First, apply an ice pack to reduce swelling. Then, use a heat pack or hot pad to ease the pain. Use for 20 minutes at a time.
Medications used to treat sciatica
Ask your doctor about medications that can reduce pain and swelling. These could include over-the-counter or prescription medications such as:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as naproxen and ibuprofen
- Corticosteroids (an anti-inflammatory medicine)
- Anti-seizure medications and anticonvulsants
- Muscle relaxants
- Benzodiazepines (used to treat anxiety and seizures)
- Opioid analgesics (pain-relieving drugs)
When to see a doctor
Seek medical attention if you have any of the following:
- Sudden, significant pain in your legs and lower back
- No feeling in your leg
- Symptoms that appear from a sudden injury or accident, such as a car crash
- Trouble controlling your bladder or bowels
Left untreated, serious cases of sciatica could cause permanent nerve damage. If your symptoms last six weeks or more, your doctor might recommend surgery. Fortunately, most cases tend to get better on their own with time and self-care treatments.
You can do this
If you’re in pain, try not to worry: Most people with sciatica recover within six weeks without surgery. Consult with your doctor or a medical professional if you have questions or concerns, or if your pain doesn’t improve.
For most people, surgery isn’t the answer, but your doctor can help decide for sure. Start with some self-treatment techniques and be patient. Soon, you’ll likely be back to better.