If you have suffered from sciatic back pain before you will know how excruciatingly painful it can be. The dull ache you feel in the small of your back whilst walking, the tingling in your legs or even a sudden jolt like a bolt of electricity shooting down your lower back Into your legs, as if you’ve been zapped by a ray gun! I’ve experienced this firsthand, and I can assure you….it’s not pleasant!
When something injures or puts pressure on the sciatic nerve, it can cause pain in the lower back that spreads to the hip, buttocks, and legs. Sometimes it seems that no amount of TLC will alleviate the pain, but don’t worry there are some tried and tested methods that may help your symptoms.
The Sciatic Nerve
The sciatic nerve is the largest and longest spinal nerve in the human body. Every person has two sciatic nerves, (right and left) supplying each lower limb. It delivers nerve signals to and from the muscles and skin of the thighs, lower legs and feet.
The sciatic nerve starts in the lower spine and follows a long path through the buttock, down the back of the thigh and leg, and finally ends in the foot. The sciatic nerve is formed by the combination of five nerves that merge in the Lumbar and Sacral spine (L4, L5, S1, S2, and S3). The lumbar section of the spine has five vertebrae (L1 – 5) and the sacral section of the spine (which are fused) also has five vertebrae (S1 – 5).
The sciatic nerve forms from the merging of the fourth and fifth lumbar nerves with the first, second and third sacral nerves.
These sciatic nerve fibres are typically responsible for motor and sensory functions of the lower body. The five nerves group together near the front surface of the piriformis muscle (see diagram) deep in the buttock and form the large, thick sciatic nerve. At its thickest, the sciatic nerve measures around 2 cm in diameter.
Risk factors for sciatica include:
- Age: Age-related changes in the spine, such as herniated disks and bone spurs, are the most common causes of sciatica.
- Obesity: By increasing the stress levels on your spine, excess body weight can contribute to the spinal changes that trigger sciatica.
- Occupation. If you have a manual job that requires you to twist your back, carry heavy loads or drive a vehicle for long periods may play a role in sciatica.
- Prolonged sitting. People who sit for prolonged periods or have a sedentary lifestyle are more likely to develop sciatica than active people are.
- Diabetes. This condition, which affects the way your body uses blood sugar, increases your risk of nerve damage.
- Strengthen the spine and muscles of the lower back, abdomen, buttocks, and hip.
- Increase core strength.
- Stretch tight and inflexible muscles, such as hamstrings.
- Do not sit or lie down for long periods, carry on with your normal activities as much as possible.
- Start gentle exercise as soon as you can, anything that gets you moving can help you get better faster.
- Heat treatment; You can use a warm hot water bottle and place it onto the painful areas of your lower back (make sure the water in the bottle is not too hot). Heat packs are also useful, you can buy these from your local pharmacy.
- Anti inflammatory gels or tablets such as ibuprofen can help. Paracetamol on its own is unlikely to relieve your symptoms of pain.
Note: If sciatic symptoms persist then please contact your GP, who will be able to offer appropriate treatments.