The term “sciatica” is derived from the name of the specific nerve that is inflamed. The sciatic nerve is the largest single nerve in the body and is composed of individual nerve roots that start by branching out from the spine in the lower back and combine to form the sciatic nerve.
Sciatica is not a medical diagnosis in and of itself, but rather can accompany as a symptom a different underlying medical condition. Often, a particular event or injury does not cause sciatica, but rather it tends to develop over time.
Symptoms of Sciatica
Suffering from one or more of the following symptoms generally indicates sciatica:
- Constant pain on one side of the buttock or one leg. Rarely, the pain might occur in both legs.
- Sitting makes pain worse
- Acute burning or tingling sensation down the leg
- Weakness, numbness or difficulty moving the leg or foot
- A sharp pain that makes it hard to stand or walk
Pain caused by sciatica can vary in frequency and intensity, from the occasional irritation to constant and incapacitating suffering. The type, location and severity of symptoms depend on the underlying condition that is causing the inflammation or irritation to the sciatic nerve.
Finally, patients with sciatica might experience something called “foot drop.” This refers to a weakening of the muscles that allow one to flex the ankle and toes, and causes an individual to drag the front of the foot while walking. Sufferers compensate for this by lifting the knee higher than usual to raise the foot.
Because sciatica is caused by an underlying medical condition, treatment is focused on relieving the underlying causes of symptoms. Treatment is often non-surgical, consisting of individual self-care and management. This approach works well for a majority of people, who often find pain relief within a few weeks or months. For others, however, sciatica pain from a pinched nerve can be severe and debilitating. In these cases surgery may be necessary.
In addition, people with sciatica can also develop something called cauda equina syndrome, which is caused by severe compression of the nerve sac in the lower spine. Patients who experience sudden bladder and/or bowel incontinence, or feel progressive weakness or numbness in the hips, crotch and legs should seek immediate medical attention.
Exercise for Sciatica
It may seem counterintuitive, but exercise is often better for relieving sciatic pain than bed rest. It is worthwhile to rest for a couple of days after a flare up of sciatic pain. After that, however, continued rest and inactivity will often make the pain worse.
The back muscles and spinal structures can become weakened and lose their ability to support the back without exercise and movement. This weakening can cause additional pain by leading to further back injury or strain. In addition, exercise is helpful for the health of the spinal discs. Movement helps exchange nutrients and fluids within the discs to keep them healthy and prevent pressure on the sciatic nerve.
While exercise is essential to managing pain, patients with sciatica need to be careful to protect the nerve. You don’t want to cause any more irritation or inflammation. It’s important, therefore, that you be very gentle with yourself and stop whenever any of the exercises cause pain. Also, talk with your doctor before beginning any type of exercise regime.
General Rules of Sciatica Exercise
A program for sciatic pain will generally take the following into consideration:
Core conditioning. It’s important to strengthen the abdominal and back muscles in order to provide more support for the back, and exercises are often prescribed for this purpose. Stretching exercises are often prescribed as well. Pain management for sciatica requires stretching of muscles that cause pain when they are tight and inflexible. A regular program of gentle strengthening and stretching exercises can help a patient recover more quickly from a flare up and make them less likely to experience future episodes.
Specific diagnosis. As already mentioned, sciatica is a symptom of another problem. A prescribed exercise program will take the specific diagnosis into consideration to make sure the right exercises are included in your program. Doing the wrong type of exercise can worsen the sciatic pain, so it is important to get an accurate diagnosis prior to starting a program of sciatica exercises.
Stretch the Hamstring. Whatever the diagnosis, most variety of sciatica will benefit from a routine to stretch the hamstring muscle. These muscles are located in the back of the thigh, and tight hamstrings increase the stress on the lower back. Also, tightness in these muscles can aggravate or even cause some of the conditions that result in sciatica.
Use proper form. Doing the correct exercises without using the proper form can make the exercises relatively ineffective, and can lead to continued or increased pain. It is important to learn your exercises under the guidance of an appropriately trained health practitioner.
Aerobic exercises. Aerobic conditioning for general body fitness is also encouraged. It’s possible to do gentle forms of aerobic exercise while maintaining a low impact approach. Walking is relatively low impact and an excellent form of exercise aerobically and for the lower back. It can provide all the benefits of an aerobic workout. If it is possible, gradually progress to three miles of exercise walking at a brisk pace each day.
Caring for sciatica should be part of one’s daily living, and not just some activities and measures to add to your routine at the end of the day. In addition to an exercise regimen, patients with sciatica should minimize everyday stress on their lower back. This means using proper form while lifting, maintaining good posture, making sure the lower back is supported while sitting, and avoiding sitting or standing for long periods of time.
Before beginning any exercise program, patients should see a health professional to get a correct diagnosis for their pain and to rule out any more serious problems. As mentioned, the proper exercises will vary based on the condition that is causing the sciatic pain, so patients should not try to self-treat their sciatica before consulting a health professional.