Relieving Sciatic Nerve Pain
An impingement on the sciatic nerve is absolutely no fun. If you’ve ever experienced it, then you know there are moments you’d rather have your nails pulled out than feel the shooting, aching agony from an irritated and angry nerve.
The sciatic nerve originates in the lower back and travels down the back and side of the leg. It’s one of two major nerves that innervate the leg so, if irritated, pain, numbness or tingling can be felt all the way down in the foot.
Although an impingement on the nerve is often debilitating, it’s also solvable. The first step is to understand the difference between cause and symptom so you can make sure you’re addressing the underlying root of the problem.
After all, it’s always better to pluck the weeds at their roots so they don’t come back at a later date.
Here are a few common conditions in the body that can lead to an impingement on the nerve and create pain:
- A bulging disc in the lumbar spine
- A ruptured disc
- Glute/piriformis tension
A bulging disc occurs when there’s too much compression on one side of the disc. The disc I’m referring to is the cushy shock absorber that sits in between each vertebra.
Much like squeezing a balloon to push all the air to the other side, when a vertebral disc is unevenly compressed, the material inside pushes up against the opposite wall creating a bulge in the disc wall.
That bulge can sometimes press up against the sciatic nerve and create pain, numbness, tingling or all the above pretty much anywhere in your hip, leg or foot.
A herniate/ruptured disc happens when the wall of the disc rips open. In terms of the balloon analogy, it’s the same as a water balloon popping and spilling the contents.
In the body, the disc fragments and the gooey disc material leak into the spinal canal and can bump up against the nerve.
A third scenario is when the muscles in the hip, namely the piriformis muscle, can become too tight and clamp down on the nerve. The sciatic nerve runs directly underneath, and sometimes right through the middle, of the piriformis. When the muscle becomes overactive and tight due to misalignment along with an imbalanced load on the hips (more weight on one leg than the other), it can compress the nerve.
The final common cause of sciatic pain is stenosis. Stenosis is a condition where the body builds up tissue in the spinal canal (the space that holds the nerves and cerebrospinal fluid) to reinforce the canal due to too much pressure in that area of the spine.
Stenosis can be a rough customer at times because you can have pain, numbness or tingling down both legs. However, it’s possible to have stenosis and not have pain as long as the nerve isn’t being impinged.
All four scenarios
All four scenarios – a rupture, bulge, piriformis tension and stenosis – are all symptoms much like the nerve pain itself.
Traditional medical treatment addresses these symptoms via drugs, surgery or physical therapy often geared towards stretching the piriformis and/or “strengthening the core.”
The last bit is in parenthesis because “strengthening the core” has become a catch phrase along with a shot-in-the-dark blindfolded dart toss that purportedly solves everything from back pain to hamstring strains and knee pain.
It usually doesn’t, but more on the myths and matters of core strength in another blog.
In this case, the root cause of all four of these conditions, and thus, the sciatic pain (in the absence of a traumatic impact) isn’t a weak core, old age, genetics or bad luck.
The real culprits are postural and emotional stress, both of which can be addressed and solved without drugs or surgery.
That’s not to say that sometimes drugs and/or surgery aren’t warranted. There is definitely a time and place for both, especially when other treatments haven’t helped or when the pain is too severe to even consider other options.
Sometimes you have no other choice but to remove the symptom entirely before you can go after the cause.
Yet, in my experience, the vast majority of the time a sciatic nerve impingement can be solved without surgical intervention.
In terms of postural stress, I’m referring to imbalanced muscles leading to misaligned hips and shoulders which creates imbalanced, uneven pressure on one side, or one area of the spine.
That imbalanced pressure creates imbalanced compression on discs, or on certain vertebrae which can lead to the development of any or all of these painful spinal conditions.
In three out of four cases, solve the misalignment and you relieve the pressure on the nerve almost every time. The only time that doesn’t always work is if there’s remaining disc material from a rupture that becomes trapped.
In that case, surgery is sometimes needed and can be the best option to relieve the pain.
The second root cause of sciatic pain is emotional stress. Emotional stress can be the result of something currently in your life that’s creating fear, anger, worry or anxiety. There also may be some unresolved emotion or pain in your past that’s bubbling up to remind you to it needs to be healed.
More often than not, the trigger for the onset of pain is a stressful life event like moving, a major work demand, a breakup, or a conflict with someone or something in your personal life.
A painful spinal condition is usually an accident waiting to happen do to postural misalignment, like a fragile vase resting on the edge of a table.
Emotional stress simply combines with the postural stress and usually provides the extra push needed to send the vase off the edge, and you into pain.
Your power over your health and the quality of your life both lie in your willingness to take responsibility. There are factors we can’t control like aging and genetics, but we can listen and respond to the messages our body gives us. This is why you always want to address both the physical and emotional components of all pain to the best of your ability.
You can start by asking a health practitioner for advice and information while you look inward to soothe or heal your emotional stress.
When it comes to sciatic pain, I recommend processing your anger first. The nerve is inflamed and irritated so I would start by asking yourself literally “What’s on my nerves right now.” What’s bothering you in your work or personal life and triggering your emotional stress? Obviously, the first step is to address and resolve that emotional trigger.
I also highly recommend any meditation that calms your nervous system and focuses your mind on your breath. Once you’re more relaxed, your nervous system’s fight-or-flight stress response can give way to a more constructive and peaceful state.
To address the postural misalignment, if you can, use the exercises in my book, Ageless, Painless Tennis or in video on sciatic pain currently on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/@davidstarbucksmith).
If you’re still experiencing pain after practicing meditation and using the exercises from my book or video, then feel free to contact me for a personal session.
No matter what, sciatic pain doesn’t have to be a life sentence. In some cases, it doesn’t even have to be a week-long sentence if addressed quickly and appropriately.
If you’ve been experiencing pain for quite a while, your symptoms are progressively worsening, or you’re suddenly having difficulty urinating, then make sure you see a doctor right away so they can help you determine where the impingement is coming from and help you choose the appropriate path to follow from there.
Finally, hang in there. With the right healing approach and mindset, it’s only a matter of time before you’re back to feeling normal again.