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Guide by Condition: Sciatica

Posted by Mike Phipps on December 10, 2018

Understanding and living with Sciatica

A man with back pain and the word 'sciata'

Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve, which runs from the hips to the feet, becomes irritated. Sciatica usually improves and gets better in around 4 to 6 weeks, but it can sometimes last longer. With the help of mobility aids and treatment, sciatica can be manageable and generally pain-free.

What causes sciatica?

Sciatica can be caused by something pressing or rubbing on the sciatic nerve, causing it to become irritated. The main causes of sciatica are: 

  • a slipped disc (the most common cause) – when a soft cushion of tissue between the bones in your spine pushes out
  • spinal stenosis – narrowing of the part of your spine where nerves pass through
  • spondylolisthesis – when one of the bones in your spine slips out of position
  • a back injury

Living with sciatica

Individuals with sciatica may find that their lower back/bottom, the backs of their legs and feet and toes may feel:

  • painful - stabbing, burning or shooting
  • tingling like pins and needles
  • numb
  • weak

Symptoms of sciatica can often feel worse when moving, sneezing and coughing, and individuals may also have slight back pain.

Treatment for sciatica

Generally, sciatica only lasts for 4 to 6 weeks but can sometimes last longer. Recovery can be sped up by:

  • carrying on with normal activities as much as possible
  • doing regular back stretches
  • starting gentle exercise as soon as you can – anything that gets you moving can help
  • holding heat packs to the painful areas – you can buy these from pharmacies
  • asking your pharmacist about painkillers that can help

Recent studies also suggest that turmeric can also help with upper and lower back pain. 

Sitting or lying down for long periods of time can actually worsen sciatica and slow down recovery, even if moving is painful. Instead of taking paracetamol on its own, ask your pharmacy what painkillers can help, as only paracetamol has little to no effect on back pain or sciatica. Additionally, make sure to use heat packs rather than hot water bottles, as the latter can scold the skin if it’s numb. If it gets worse, see your GP who may advise:

  • exercises and stretches
  • prescribing painkillers for nerve pain
  • physiotherapy including exercise advice and techniques like massage
  • psychological support to help you cope with the pain

Various mobility aids

Products shown: Harley back soother cushion, Blazewear heated back warmer, Coccyx cushion, Anabox 7 day pill organiser, Economy pedal exerciser

More information