Expert advice on relieving sciatica symptoms

The most common symptoms of sciatica include sharp, shooting pain in the lower back, buttocks, and down one or both legs. Picture: Supplied

The most common symptoms of sciatica include sharp, shooting pain in the lower back, buttocks, and down one or both legs. Picture: Supplied

Published Jan 17, 2024


Sciatica, which refers to pain, weakness, numbness, or tingling in the leg, is not a condition but a set of symptoms, Affinity Health CEO Murray Hewlett explained.

“The sciatic nerve runs down each leg from the lower back and buttocks and is the longest nerve in the human body,” Hewlett said.

“Pain of varied degrees can come from irritation or compression of this nerve."

Causes of sciatica

Hewlett explained that several conditions can lead to sciatica, including:

Herniated disc: This occurs when the inner core of a spinal disc protrudes, exerting pressure on the sciatic nerve.

Spinal stenosis: Narrowing of the spinal canal can compress nerve roots, resulting in sciatic symptoms.

Piriformis Syndrome: The sciatic nerve can become irritated when the piriformis muscle in the buttocks spasms or tightens.

Spondylolisthesis: When a vertebra shifts out of its normal position and compresses the nerve, it can lead to sciatica.

Trauma or injury: Spinal injuries, such as fractures or dislocations, can potentially cause sciatica.

Degenerative disc disease: Over time, the discs that cushion the vertebrae can degenerate, narrowing the spinal canal and potentially irritating the sciatic nerve.

Pregnancy: Hormonal changes in pregnancy relax the ligaments and can render joints unstable, including those of the pelvis.

“The added weight and changes in posture during pregnancy can sometimes exert pressure on the sciatic nerve. The expanding uterus and the baby’s head can rest on the sciatic nerve,” Hewlett said.

Tumours: Rarely, tumours within or near the spine can compress the sciatic nerve, causing sciatica.

Infection: Infections affecting the spine, such as spinal osteomyelitis or epidural abscesses, can lead to inflammation and pressure on the sciatic nerve, resulting in sciatica-like symptoms.

Symptoms of sciatica

Hewlett said that the most common symptoms of sciatica include sharp, shooting pain in the lower back, buttocks, and down one or both legs.

Other symptoms include numbness or tingling sensation in the legs or feet, pain when sitting or standing for extended periods and, in some cases, difficulty in controlling leg movements.

There are a range of treatments for sciatica. Picture: Instagram

Diagnosis and treatment

Standard diagnostic procedures for sciatica include:

– A thorough physical examination.

– A study of the patient's medical history.

– Imaging tests like X-rays or MRIs to pinpoint the source of the pain.

Once diagnosed, Hewlett said, various treatment options were available.

Five ways to relieve sciatica symptoms

While some causes of sciatica are beyond one's control, there are ways to relieve symptoms:

– Consult a health-care professional

If you experience sciatica symptoms, seeking medical evaluation and diagnosis is crucial, Hewlett insisted.

“A physician, chiropractor, or physical therapist can determine the underlying cause of your sciatica and recommend appropriate treatment options.”

– Physical therapy and exercise

A physical therapist can design a personalised exercise programme to strengthen the muscles supporting the spine and improve flexibility, he said.

“Exercises may include stretches, core strengthening, and low-impact aerobics activities.”

– Heat and cold therapy

Muscle tension and pain can be alleviated using a heating pad or cold compress, Hewlett suggested. “Some people may respond well to alternating heat and cold treatments.”

– Medications

Over-the-counter medication can help reduce inflammation and relieve mild symptoms.

“To manage severe pain, prescription medications or muscle relaxants may be necessary,” Hewlett recommended.

– Epidural steroid injections

Hewlett explained that epidural steroid injections have proven to be useful for individuals with severe and persistent sciatica pain.

“These injections deliver corticosteroids directly into the spinal canal to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain,” he said.

“While they can provide temporary relief, they are not a long-term solution and should be used with other therapies.”

Here are Hewlett’s additional tips for sciatica relief

– Maintain good posture:

Proper posture can reduce pressure on the spine and alleviate sciatic pain.

“Avoid sitting for extended periods and use ergonomic chairs and support cushions when necessary,” he said.

– Use lumbar support:

Place a lumbar roll or cushion behind your lower back when sitting to maintain the spine's natural curve.

– Lift objects correctly:

Bend at the knees and use your legs, not your back, to lift heavy objects.

– Sleep on a supportive mattress:

A medium-firm mattress can provide adequate support for the spine and promote proper alignment.

– Practice relaxation techniques:

As stress can exacerbate sciatic pain, Hewlett suggested considering techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga to reduce stress and tension.

"Addressing sciatica requires a combination of treatments, lifestyle modifications, and self-care practices,” he said.

“Working with a health-care professional to develop a comprehensive plan tailored to your specific needs is essential.”