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In Focus: What Triggers Sciatica?

In Focus: What Triggers Sciatica?

Chronic pain, injury, or any form of physical discomfort can greatly affect your quality of life. Living with any of these can significantly affect your mood, mobility, sleeping patterns, memory and concentration, and even your relationships. Pain also tends to promote dependence on pain-relieving drugs, making you more susceptible to anxiety and depression.

Sciatica refers to nerve pain from irritation or injury to the sciatic nerve, the longest and thickest nerve in your body. This condition is often associated with lower back pain and typically affects only one side of your body. From a mild ache to a sharp, burning sensation, sciatica pain varies widely and can sometimes feel like a jolt or electric shock. Others feel numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness in the affected leg. The pain worsens when you cough or sneeze, and prolonged sitting can aggravate symptoms.

Harvard Health Publishing claims that about 40% of Americans experience sciatica sometime during their life. Although many people fully recover from this condition without treatment, sciatica can potentially lead to loss of bowel or bladder function, or worse, permanent nerve damage.

Managing one of the most common yet misunderstood types of pain is not an easy feat, especially if you don’t know its root causes. Let’s take a closer look at the possible culprits behind your sciatic nerve discomfort.

What Causes Sciatica?

Sciatica results from a pinched sciatic nerve that’s usually caused by a trauma injury to your lumbar spine, an overgrowth of bone (bone spur) on your vertebrae, or a herniated disc in your spine. In rare cases, the nerve can be damaged by disease or compressed by a tumor.

Some underlying medical conditions that cause sciatica include:

  • Slipped or herniated disc

As you age, your bones and joints become fragile, and the discs that cushion your spine begin to lose fluid and flexibility. In some cases, your disc can slip out of the space between your bones and compress a nerve, giving you a herniated disc or, worse, sciatica. This occurs when the pain from your slipped disc travels through your sciatic nerve.

  • Osteoarthritis

Also called wear and tear arthritis, this condition is the most common type of arthritis characterized by swollen and painful joints due to cartilage breakdown. Bone spurs (jagged edges of bone) can form in your spine as you age, which can compress the nerves on your lower back and result in osteoarthritis.

  • Spondylolisthesis

Commonly associated with degenerative disc disorder, this condition is characterized by slippage of one spinal bone or vertebra over another, pinching the nerves that make up your sciatic nerve.

  • Spinal stenosis

This condition is the abnormal narrowing of your lower spinal canal, which puts pressure on your spinal cord and your sciatic nerve roots.

  • Cauda equina syndrome

This syndrome is a rare but serious condition that affects your cauda equina, or the bundle of nerves at the end of your spinal cord. Symptoms of this disorder include leg pain, numbness around the anus, and loss of bladder and bowel control. If left untreated, cauda equina syndrome can result in paralysis, decreased sexual tension, and numbness or tingling in your groin area.

  • Piriformis syndrome

This uncommon neuromuscular disorder is characterized by the tightening and spasming of your piriformis muscle, a small muscle located deep in your buttocks that connects the lower portion of your spine to your thighbones. Piriformis syndrome puts pressure on and irritates your nerves, resulting in sciatica.

What Triggers Sciatica?

Some risk factors for sciatica include:

  • Age

Age is one of the most common triggers for sciatica. As your body ages normally, the structure of your bones, discs, and ligaments change or wear out naturally, putting your nerves at risk of being injured or pinched.

  • Diabetes

This disease occurs when your blood sugar becomes too high, which can damage your nerves and interfere with their ability to send signals, resulting in diabetic neuropathy. The symptom of this condition in the legs is similar to sciatica, which increases your chance of serious nerve damage.

  • Obesity

Excess body weight increases the stress on your spine and contributes to the spinal changes that trigger sciatica. The heavier your body is, the more strain you put on your spine. This can cause back problems, injuries, and ultimately, sciatica.

  • Pregnancy

While it’s true that pregnancy often triggers sciatica, increased weight is not the main reason why pregnant women get this condition. Certain pregnancy hormones cause ligaments to loosen, which, in turn, destabilizes the spine and might cause discs to slip, resulting in pinched nerves and sciatica. The baby’s position and weight can also add pressure to the nerve, but the sciatic pain usually goes away after birth. 

  • Occupation

Certain occupations place a lot of strain on your back. People whose jobs require twisting movements, heavy lifting, or prolonged sitting are more likely at risk of developing back problems and sciatica.

  • Smoking

Smoking is a common risk factor that triggers sciatica. The nicotine in tobacco reduces the blood supply to your bones, damaging your spinal tissue and wearing down your vertebral disks. The more you smoke, the more stress you put on your spine, which can trigger sciatica.

How to Treat Sciatica Pain

Mild sciatica usually goes away over time. If the pain you feel is somehow bearable, the best move is to perform self-care measures to ease your symptoms and see if the pain subsides on its own. If there’s no improvement and the pain begins to affect your daily activities, then it’s time to seek medical attention.

While severe cases of sciatica won’t always be fixed by sleeping it off or changing your lifestyle, there are various remedies you can take to help ease the pain until your back returns to normal. Don’t let any physical discomfort stand in the way of your work and personal life. Here are some tips on how to treat sciatica pain:

Traditional Remedies

  • Hot and Cold Therapy

If your sciatica is caused by an injury, you can try applying hot and cold remedies to ease your discomfort. Cold therapy involves the use of ice packs or cold compress, which can reduce swelling and help alleviate the pain by numbing your lower back. This method is recommended in the first 24-48 hours of pain to reduce swelling.

Hot therapy involves the use of heating pads of a hot-water bottle on your back after 48 hours from the onset of sciatica pain. The warmth can help soothe and relax your aching muscles by increasing blood flow and speeding up the healing process of your nerve injury.

You can try alternating between hot and cold therapy if the pain persists. Just make sure to apply both therapies with caution to avoid burning your skin with ice or heat.

  • Regular Exercise

Exercise promotes better sleep, even if you’re struggling with sciatica. Engaging in regular physical activities is vital to keeping your back and nerves healthy and less prone to injury. The more you stay active, the more your body releases endorphins, which are your brain’s natural painkillers. This helps facilitate the healing process for sciatica.

If you’re not a fitness buff, you can try low-impact activities like yoga, swimming, or walking.  Gently stretching your lower back is also beneficial to strengthen your stomach or core muscles, which provides support for your spine. With regular exercise, your endurance improves and your risk of getting sciatica decreases.

  • Optimized Workspace

Working from home or in the office can make you vulnerable to chronic pain and fatigue, especially without an ergonomic workstation. According to the American Chiropractic Association, 50% of all working Americans experience back pain symptoms each year. Consider optimizing your workstation to prevent sciatica. You can start by using quality furniture and arranging them in an ergonomic way to reduce strain on your spine.

More than having an ergonomic workspace, it’s important to take breaks by standing once in a while and walking around to relieve muscle tension. Mind how you move and follow good posture techniques while you’re sitting, standing, lifting objects, and sleeping to relieve pressure on your lower back.

  • Over-the-counter or prescription medication

Over-the-counter or prescription medications are the most common treatment options that people turn to for sciatica pain. Over-the-counter medicines fall in the category of so-called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Your doctor may prescribe narcotic pain relief, muscle relaxers, or antidepressants, depending on your level of pain. However, it’s important to be cautious of using painkillers excessively, since some drugs can cause complications like ulcers and stomach bleeding.

Alternative Treatments

  • Physical Therapy

The system of physical therapy is focused on the structure of the body to relieve sciatica pain and allow you to better manage your condition. This involves exercise movements that improve muscle flexibility, strengthen the muscles of your back, abdomen, and legs, and reduce pressure on your nerves. This alternative treatment also includes massage therapy or the application of motion, pressure, tension, or vibration to your body to relieve pressure and pain on your nerves.

  • Chiropractic Care

Chiropractors are health care professionals who perform adjustments and exercises that can help treat a wide variety of conditions, including sciatica. As rehabilitation experts, chiropractors focus on the treatment of musculoskeletal conditions through spinal manipulation. Instead of relying on pain-relieving drugs, getting chiropractic care is a great alternative to relieving sciatica pain. This holistic approach to treatment works best when combined with proper exercise and relaxation techniques.

Partner with LifeClinic for Your Recovery

Put an end to your sciatica pain by partnering with LifeClinic for your recovery. We offer the best chiropractic care and physical therapy services with the aim to restore, maintain, and optimize human function. Start your journey to a pain-free life and book an appointment with LifeClinic today.

Dr. Reza Alizadeh

Dr. Reza is the visionary behind LifeClinic. His leadership is the foundation for the patient and team member experience, and overall direction of the LifeClinic. As the creator of IMJT, Dr. Reza continues to be the primary teacher on this technique.

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