Sciatica is a word that carries a lot of connotations with it. Fear, mostly. A lot of people talk about sciatica with the same reverence they would when talking about getting an arm chopped off – and rightly so. It gets hard to walk when you can’t use a leg properly! There is a lot of misinformation about sciatica, what it is and what causes it, so…
What is sciatica?
Sciatica generally shows up as pain through the bum and down the back of one leg, sometimes extending right down into the feet and toes too. It can also be tingling, numbness or weakness – or a combination of all three. It can stop you from moving your leg, feet and toes and make it difficult to walk, stand up or move.
Most people think that sciatica is the end diagnosis, but it isn’t – it’s just a symptom. Just like a runny nose points to a set of diseases, or a cough can point to another, sciatica just tells your therapist that there is something squashing (impinging) the sciatic nerve somewhere!
The sciatic nerve is a huge nerve that runs down the back of the leg before splitting into two branches at the knee. If it gets impinged anywhere, it is going to give you a lot of problems, like the pain, weakness and general inability to move we talked about earlier.
Causes of sciatica
When people come to me asking “Can you cure sciatica?” I tell them it depends on what’s causing it! Just like there are loads of things that can cause a runny nose, there’s a lot that can cause your sciatica too. Some of it is really serious and most of it is easily fixed.
One of the most common causes is a tight piriformis, basically a muscle in your bum area. The piriformis connects to the pelvis right where the sciatic nerve pokes out of your spine, so any tightness from it has a huge impact.
Piriformis syndrome is where your piriformis muscle gets tight and painful. This can be caused by too much driving or even sitting with your legs crossed. To relieve it, get a tennis, lacrosse or golf ball and sit on it! Be careful though, a tight piriformis is a painful thing. For more info on self care, check out my post on Top Therapy Tools You Already Own as well as my review of Becoming a Supple Leopard, but a good rule of thumb is the tennis ball is for beginners, the lacrosse ball is for experienced people and the golf ball is for sadists.
Another easily treated cause can be SIJ dysfunction. SIJ stands for Sacro-Iliac Joint – the joint at the back of the pelvis where it connects with the base of the spine.
SIJ dysfunction is where the joint is unhappy – maybe it’s slightly out of line, maybe the muscles around there are tight. Whatever the cause, it is impinging on the sciatic nerve, giving you all the unhappy symptoms that go with it. This is easily sorted with some physical therapy, so book yourself in with a physio/chrio/osteo or…sports massage therapist.
Heat can help relax muscles and ice or cold packs are great at numbing nerves and relieving pain. There are positives and negatives to using each of them, for more on that, check out this article.
Other, more serious causes can be a herniated disc (often called a slipped disc), degenerative discs, spondylolisthesis or stenosis. These will require a trip to your GP and most likely surgery. The good news is that these are much less common!
Most importantly, take it easy
…but don’t stop. Lying in bed all day can make things worse, so keep moving as much as you can tolerate. Walk if you can and as much as is reasonable.