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Sciatica: causes, symptoms and treatments

Woman with back pain
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What is sciatica?

Sciatica is pain that you experience in the lower half of your body. The pain is often referred to as a trapped nerve or nerve root pain, as the pain is the result of the nerve that comes out of the spinal cord has been irritated or pressed on.

What causes sciatica?

Sciatica happens when something presses or rubs onto the sciatic nerve, this causes the nerve to become irritated and painful. The most common cause of sciatica is a slipped disc; this is when one of the soft cushioning of tissue that sits between your bones in your spine is pushed out of place.

Other causes of sciatica can include:

  • Injury to your back, for example from an accident or playing sports
  • Muscle spasms that happen in the back or buttocks
  • Spinal stenosis, this is when the part of your spine where the nerves pass through becomes narrower
  • Spondylolisthesis occurs when one of the bones that makes up your spine slips out of place

Pregnancy is not a cause of sciatica, however during your pregnancy you may experience back pain. As your body prepares itself for labour the ligaments in your body naturally soften and stretch, this can put a strain on your joints, especially in your back and pelvis.

What are the symptoms of sciatica?

If you experience back pain with no other symptoms or pain in other parts of your body then you are more than likely do not have sciatica.

Sciatica symptoms present in other areas of your body and not just your back, your bottom, backs of legs, feet and toes may be affected and painful. You may also feel pain in your lower back, but this will generally feel less painful than other areas of your body such as your legs.

The pain you are feeling varies from person to person, you might be able to describe the pain as stabbing, burning or shooting. Many people experience tingling pain like pins and needles or on the other hand your body might feel numb or weak.

How long does it take for sciatic nerve pain to go away?

Sciatica tends to last for between four to six weeks, although you may find that the pain eases within two weeks. However it can last for longer, if your pain hasn’t improved after a few weeks then you should see your GP. They will be able to offer advice and treatment. Those who have experience sciatic pain in the past may find that the pain reoccurs from time to time, if this is the case your GP can offer lifestyle advice to help prevent sciatic episodes.

How do I get my sciatic nerve to stop hurting?

Stay as active as possible as this can offer relief from the pain you are feeling, try to carry on with your daily tasks and incorporate gentle exercise into your routine. Sitting or lying for long periods of time can slow down your recovery, even if moving hurts. There are exercises and stretches that you can do at home to ease your sciatica; these exercises should be performed everyday alongside activities such as walking, yoga or swimming.

Sciatica exercises

Knee and chest stretch

  • Lie on your back and place a cushion or small book under your head.
  • Bend your knees, while making sure your feet are about hip width apart as well as straight and flat on the floor.
  • Gently tuck in your chin to align your spin and keep your upper body relaxed.
  • With deep breaths bend your knee and bring it up towards your chest, grab around your knee with both hands, your shoulders will rise off the floor as you do this.
  • Hold your knee like this for around 30 seconds while breathing deeply.
  • Make sure to alternate your legs, and if you can repeat the exercise for three times.

The NHS has more exercises that you can follow to help stretch and release your sciatic nerve; hopefully you’ll find that one of these especially works for you.

What is the most effective pain relief for sciatica?

If you are experiencing the symptoms of sciatica, there are many treatment options available to help ease your pain at home before seeing your GP.

Sciatica pain relief options

Anti-inflammatory drugs - You can use pain relief medication such as ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatory drugs that can be bought over the counter in your local pharmacy. These help to reduce swelling, pain and inflammation in the muscles surrounding your spine. It is not advised that you use paracetamol to treat sciatica as this particular medication does not help with the pain.

Heat or ice packs - Using both hot and cold packs can help to alleviate pain. Cold packs can help to reduce inflammation, whilst heat packs can help to increase blood flow to the area. Alternating between the two.

Paingone band – Specially designed to ease sciatic pain, the paingone sciatix compresses the acupressure point in your calf to stop the pain radiating up and down your body.

Pharmacy strength medication – Your pharmacist can help you find the best painkillers for your pain. Did you know that can get higher strength medication without a prescription in your local pharmacy? Talk to your pharmacist about your sciatic pain and they’ll be able to talk you through the strong medication on offer.

Your GP - If your sciatic pain has not abated after a few weeks it is time to see your GP. They’ll be able to offer strong painkillers, and they might recommend physiotherapy. Completing daily exercises that target sciatic pain can help to relive your symptoms and manage the pain you are experiencing.

How do you prevent sciatica?

It might not always be possible to prevent sciatica or stop it from returning, however taking care of your back can help to reduce your risk. Keeping active, regularly doing exercises and stretches can help to strengthen you back. Make sure to follow safe lifting practices if you are lifting heavy objects at home or work, try not to bend your back but use your knees and the strength in your legs to support the weight.

Many of us nowadays have jobs where we are sat down for the majority of the day, so when you’re sitting make sure that you are adopting a good posture. Your back should be properly supported by your chair, your feet should be flat on the floor and your screen should be at eye level so you’re not bending your neck.

If you are overweight you might want to consider losing weight. If we’re carrying more weight than is healthy for our height, the extra weight puts extra strain on the muscles and joints in our backs. Find out how you can healthily lose weight in our handy weight loss guide

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Can sciatica pain go away?

Yes, sciatic pain tends to last for 4 to 6 weeks, although it can last for longer than this. However, if your pain is getting worse, or hasn’t improved or if it is stopping you from completing your normal activities then you should see your GP. They will be able to offer treatment advice.

Is walking good for sciatic nerve pain?

Yes, walking can help with sciatic nerve pain. Walking and other gentle exercises can help to speed up your recovery and reduce the pain you are feeling. When you have sciatic pain you should continue your normal activities as much as you can, as well as introducing back stretches into your routine.

What does it feel like to have sciatica?

Sciatica pain stretches from your lower back down to your bottom and then to the back of your legs. This pain can vary from person to person; you may feel an ache, burning sensation or sharp pain.