Have you ever suffered from an intolerable pain shooting down your leg without any apparent reason? If you are over 65 years of age then, there’s a high probability that your answer is in the affirmative. You might be suffering from a common condition called sciatica. Sciatic nerve pain happens when there is irritation or pressure on the sciatic nerve, which is the longest nerve of the body. This condition might result in loss of muscle function in the lower limb.
Sciatic nerve pain is very severe and it rarely goes uninformed to the physician. Several medications like NSAIDs and muscle relaxants are available for its treatment.
Alternative therapies or natural remedies for sciatica are yoga, massage therapy, chiropractic, and acupuncture, are slowly taking center stage because of lower side effects and a better range of movement.
These natural methods don’t change the anatomy of the sciatic nerve. Also, these home remedies minimize stress levels and boost our immunity. Daily exercise, healthy eating habits and proper sleep aid in keeping you hale and hearty.
What is sciatic nerve pain?
The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body, and it supplies the back of the thigh and leg and the dorsum (upper surface) of the foot.
Any damage to this nerve will cause dysfunction in different areas of its supply depending on the level of the nerve affected. The sciatic nerve injury occurs in various ways; the most common being increased pressure on its root in a slipped disc.
Impingement of the nerve will not only hinder information transfer but will also stimulate pain sensors. This will cause intolerable pain in the back, buttock, thigh, and leg which can’t be relieved with rest.
This debilitating condition reduces the quality of life, economic stability and social efficacy and hence, early diagnosis and treatment are mandatory.
Most of the lower back pains due to sciatica disappear within six weeks only to reappear later if the underlying cause is not corrected. In case of severe damage to the nerve, the pain lasts for more than six weeks.
Symptoms of sciatic nerve pain
The most common symptom of sciatic nerve pain or sciatica is a pain in the thigh and leg of the affected side. This pain is aggravated by sudden movements and is not relieved at rest.
So, a continuous background discomfort persists. Following are some of the common symptoms of sciatic nerve pain –
- A shooting pain arising in the back and spreading to your hip, back of thigh and calf. Depending on the part of sciatic nerve affected, it may even spread to the foot and toes.
- Constant pain in one side of your butt which increases on sitting.
- A shooting pain down your leg which makes it difficult to stand up from a sitting position.
- Tingling sensations and numbness in your lower limb.
- Stiffening of legs and difficulty in flexing your foot hence, you face trouble while walking.
Patients, who are having sciatic nerve pain, complains of chronic pain in legs more often than back or hip pain. They are diagnosed with the straight leg raising test, also known as Lasegue’s sign.
In this test, the patient is made to sleep on his/her back and asked to raise an extended leg. A shooting pain arising from the hip to lower leg indicates an anomaly in the sciatic nerve.
70-80% patients with sciatic nerve pain or sciatica have a favorable prognosis, and their pain subsides without any treatment in 6-7 weeks. The remaining 20-30% are not so lucky and have to undergo further investigations and even surgery if required. (1)
Causes of sciatic nerve pain
The most common cause of sciatica is a herniated lumbar disc, commonly known as slipped disc or disc prolapse. Our vertebral column contains pads to connective tissue called vertebral discs between two vertebrae which act as shock absorbers.
Vertebral discs reduce damage to nerve roots due to any sudden jerk or undue stress. With increasing age, wear and tear of the vertebral discs create a bulge in the periphery which impinged on the sciatic nerve root as it comes out.
Some less frequent causes of a slipped disc are accident or injury. (2) Another equally common but usually overlooked cause of sciatica is inflammation of the nerve root.
Cigarette smokers, recreational drug users, and overweight people have a higher risk of suffering from inflammation of the sciatic nerve covering or the nerve itself. The repetitive firing of the inflamed nerve causes severe pain in the area of its supply.
Ankylosing spondylitis (arthritis of the spine), spinal stenosis, piriformis syndrome, and sacroiliac joint dysfunction are some rarer causes of lower back pain and sciatica.
Unhealthy eating habits, lack of sleep and increased mental stress lead to rapid aging of the spinal discs, and hence, these people become more prone to disc herniation of inflammation, consequently causing sciatica.
- Also read: How to Sleep with Lower Back Pain?
Natural remedies for sciatica
Some of the effective natural sciatica treatment options are –
1. Stretching and Yoga
Sudden movements like rising from a sitting position or rapidly sitting down will create traction on your sciatic nerve and your pain will deteriorate further.
Any action which causes flexion of your hip joint will aggravate the pain. Common examples are raising a straight leg, squatting or bringing knees towards your chest.
Certain yoga positions which stretch your spine while relieving the already stiff areas due to inflammation are helpful. This exercise not only reduces your pain and stiffness but also goes a long way to giving you a better posture.
Studies reveal that regularly doing yoga can alleviate the suffering of sciatica and also creates a healthy living habit. (3) A particular stretch exercise called the ‘reclining pigeon pose’ increases the mobility of your stiffened hip by stretching it in all directions.
2. Chiropractic adjustments
Chiropractic is a branch of alternative medicine which deals with problems of the musculoskeletal system, especially the spine.
With increasing awareness among people about the side effects of conventional medications, more and more are opting for alternative treatment options.
After making a clinical diagnosis of sciatica from your history, the doctor will perform further investigations like X-ray and MRI to identify the underlying cause.
If disc prolapsed or a herniated disc is spotted, you can either go for a surgery or non-invasive treatment options like chiropractic.
The chiropractor will realign the herniated disc back to its anatomical location thus, relieving the pressure on the sciatic nerve.
A study published in the Official Journal of the North American Spinal Society showed that patients who received proper chiropractic treatment suffered pain for a shorter duration and of a lower intensity as compared to those who didn’t undergo any treatment. (4)
3. Acupuncture and massage therapy
Modern-day acupuncture originated from traditional Chinese medicine practice. This therapy uses small needles targeted at specific pathways in our body.
This virtually painless procedure is based on the principle of opening the body’s natural flow of energy to achieve better health and body functions.
A systematic review of 11 randomized controlled trials revealed that acupuncture is more effective than conventional drugs and may also enhance the effect of drugs in sciatica patients. (5)
Other non-surgical and holistic maneuvers that aim at easing the pain, reducing stress and improving posture are rolfing and massage therapy.
Massage therapy not only diminishes the pain but also releases endorphins that are endogenous narcotics (pain-relieving substances) which reduce pain further.
4. Hot and cold packs
An alternate application of cold and hot packs as used in cryotherapy and thermotherapy act as a supportive treatment for alleviating the pain of sciatica and other causes of lower back pain.
A clinical study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research showed that when hot and cold packs are applied to patients, who are already on pain medication for acute lower back pain, the intensity and duration of their suffering is reduced. (6)
5. Changing the sedentary lifestyle
Nowadays, with advancing technology, we can work while sitting in one place without moving an inch. Also, at home, television and video games prevent us from getting a much-needed dose of physical activity.
When we sit for long hours, a lot of pressure builds up on our lower spine which aggravates the strain on our sciatic nerve and thus producing more pain and stiffness in the inflamed areas.
So, walking for a few minutes or performing isometric exercises, which don’t require any significant movements, at the short interval is a good idea if you want to get rid of that troublesome back pain.
Sitting straight and lengthening your spine are other ways to reduce pain. You also get a better posture along with it.
6. Minimizing risk factors
Although the causes of sciatica are numbered, a vast array of risk factors may be working together behind the scenes. Some of these factors are old age, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, tall stature, type A personality (more anxiety and mental stress), cigarette smoking and occupational exposure to mechanical vibrations by truck drivers, drillers, etc.
While age and height can’t be modified, we can overcome the other threats by reducing the intake of noxious substances that cause inflammation like cigarette smoke and recreational drugs.
A healing diet which consists of fresh fruits, high-fiber vegetables, nuts and dairy products leads to faster restoration of health.
Conventional therapies for sciatic nerve pain
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are the mainstay therapy for sciatic nerve pain. Their minimal side effects and high efficacy make them reliable medicines for alleviating pain.
Some NSAIDs used nowadays are naproxen (Aleve), ibuprofen (Advil), aspirin and acetaminophen. Aspirin must not be given to children due to increased risk of Reye’s syndrome (liver and brain damage).
Muscle relaxants to ease muscle stiffness and spasms and anti-depressants in case of chronic pain are also a part of the treatment regimen.
In severe, acute cases, a steroid may be injected into the affected area but this will only treat inflammation and won’t reduce the pressure due to the herniated disc.
Points to take home on sciatic nerve pain
Almost every third you know has already suffered or is currently putting up with back and lower limb pain of sciatica. This painful condition not only creates uneasiness but also deteriorates your social and professional life.
Early diagnosis and prompt treatment are crucial to unburdening you from the menace of sciatic nerve pain. Natural therapies like chiropractic, acupuncture, yoga, massage therapy, hot and cold therapy are gaining momentum as the sole treatment for sciatic nerve pain due to their countless advantages like improving mobility, relaxing the stiffened muscles, reducing stress levels and boosting immunity.
A balanced diet, regular stretching of back muscles and smoking cessation facilitate an early recovery.