Kicking Sciatica in the Butt
Sciatica is the generic name given for any irritation of the sciatic nerve resulting in symptoms anywhere along the nerve. The sciatic nerve is the body’s largest nerve, made up of five nerve roots in the low back. It runs from the low back through the buttocks and hip area, down the back of the upper leg, where it splits into two nerves behind the knee and continues into the foot. The symptoms of sciatica vary greatly, from dull to sharp pains, from tingling and burning to numbness, and everything in between. Being nerve-related, sciatica can literally send electrical-like jolts and shocks through your leg or legs. Overall, it can be very minor discomfort to excruciating and unbearable pain.
The big question is, with all the treatment options out there, how do you know what to do? I have treated sciatica clients for over 25 years and have recently become an international sciatica consultant. Here are the five best tips I can give you. They all apply to anyone with sciatica, no matter the cause.
- Avoid aggravating the sciatic nerve further
Most people say stretching the muscles in the back of the affected leg will alleviate symptoms. Though I used to think that way also, I now think this: If something is irritated or tight, why would you pull it tighter to alleviate it? It seems like the same logic as rubbing irritated skin or picking at a scab, thinking it will enhance healing. To me, stretching something that is irritated will only irritate it further (whether that irritation is immediate or delayed, similar to how scratching irritated skin feels good in the moment but further irritates things later). My focus is to avoid doing anything that puts stress on the irritated nerve. So, if you are dealing with sciatica issues, please, for your sake, avoid adding tension to the nerve and give it a chance to calm down.
- Stretch the opposite side of the body
Yes, you read that correctly. If you are avoiding stretching the bad leg, stretching the non-involved (opposite) leg will do wonders to minimize symptoms. The body is incredible at adapting and having carry-over affects. I have found that stretching the good leg (assuming sciatica is only on one side) causes the affected leg to relax, improving movement and decreasing pain. Simply lie on your bed or the floor, or you can sit on a chair as well. Lift the non-sciatica-affected leg, either with your hands or a towel, and feel a good strong pull in your hamstring. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds, repeat it 10 times and see if it takes some pressure off the bad side. Stop immediately if this stretch aggravates your bad side. You will find that when you stretch the looser and more comfortable side of your body, your body will relax, and the pressure will actually ease on your tight side.
- Avoid painful motions (as much as possible)
As much as possible, avoid positions or activities that are painful. As stated above, when your nerve is irritated, putting it in compromising positions or painful activities will only further aggravate it — you will pay at the time or possibly later in the day. With sciatica, avoiding painful motions and activities can be very tricky, so go slow, be wise and do the best you can. Oftentimes, any motion or activity can be painful, so this may be unavoidable. But as much as possible, keep from those motions, activities and positions that cause pain.
- Seek help as quickly as possible
Studies are showing that seeking help from a good physical therapist within the first 14 days of pain can save an average of nearly $2,500 over the duration of an episode (low back and sciatica). Think “the sooner the better” if you start to feel sciatica issues coming on. Also, the longer the issue is there, the longer it typically takes to calm down. Getting in the right care as soon as possible can save you time, money and lots of lost time doing the things you love.
- As Always — Stay Hydrated
It still holds true that you have to stay hydrated for your body to function optimally. Increased water intake, especially as the temperature rises, helps flush inflammation, keeps your joints lubricated and your muscles functioning optimally. So, please drink enough water, which is always more than you think it should be. It is very easy to control this part of the pain equation.
By Dean Volk, PT
Owner and Senior Therapist
Volk Physical Therapy