For those of us who have experienced sciatica, it’s easy to tell when it hits. It often starts with pain in the low back, spreading down the leg, creating a tingling or painful sensation, making it a challenge to focus on anything else. So why is it that pain starting in our low back can create intense sensations in the thighs, buttocks, legs, knees and even feet? Our bodies all full of nerves, muscles, bones and soft tissue that are interconnected. When pain starts in one spot it begins to affect other parts of the body rather quickly. Sciatica specifically refers to pain that travels along the path of our sciatic nerve. This nerve starts in the lower back and travels through the hips, buttocks and down each leg.
For centuries, both doctors and the millions who suffer from sciatic pain have tried numerous “remedies” searching for fast relief. A 2005 article in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine projected that over 5 percent of adults in the US are dealing with sciatica and there is a 40 percent chance of experiencing it at least one in a lifetime.
What is Sciatica and What Causes it?
Sciatica is classified as pain caused in the lower part of the body due to irritation of the sciatic nerve. For many the pain is first felt in the lower back, down and behind the thigh as well as below the knee. Since both legs contain a sciatic nerve pain can be triggered on either side. What causes it? In some cases, this painful occurrence is caused by lumbar disc herniation that presses the nerve causing pain, but for others any irritation or inflammation of the sciatic nerve can create symptoms. Flare ups can be caused by a variety of everyday tasks such as sitting, running, bending over or working out. Another trigger? The piriformis muscle. The piriformis is located deep within the hip/gluteal region, near the pelvis and back of the hip-joint. For some the piriformis easily becomes tight, causing it to push on the sciatic nerve and the tendons close by, but for others the piriformis is pierced by the sciatic nerve which causes intense pain, burning or a pins-and-needles feeling.
Stretches Can Help with Pain from Sciatica
Gentle stretches for the low back may help relieve the pain and compression. Additionally, stretching tight hamstrings can also make a big difference as tight hamstrings + a tight piriformis can cause some serious sciatic constriction, resulting in pain. When stretching, we recommend moving slowly, avoid fast movements or bouncing and hold the stretch for around 30 seconds to a minute. Stretches can be repeated throughout the day, but if the pain worsens it is crucial that you stop.
Infrared Can Help Soothe the Sciatic Nerve
A bit different than your average heating pad, infrared heatpenetrates around 1.5 inches into the body acting on irritated nerve endings, such as the root nerve in which sciatica stems from. “During infrared immersion, pain may be relieved through the reduction of attendant or secondary spasms,” says Dr. Aaron Flickstein. “Pain is also at times related to ischemia or the lack of blood supply due to tension or spasm that can be improved by the hyperthermia that infrared can produce.” This process can break the recurring loop in which lack of blood flow leads to further spasms and more pain.
“Heat has been shown to reduce the pain sensation by direct action on both free-nerve endings in tissues and on peripheral nerves. In one dental study, repeated heat applications led to abolishment of the whole nerve response responsible for pain arising from dental pulp,” says Flickstein. Infrared heat has also been known to calm down nerves (the ones in your body as well as your mind!) that are in a state of panic. This natural pain relief can last up to 48 hours or perhaps longer as infrared heat can promote healing.
Stretching, yoga, acupuncture, herbal remedies and over the counter pain medication can help, however, sometimes our bodies need rest and soothing heat to ease the pain. Infrared sessions often leave the user feeling relaxed, relieved from pain, detoxified and lighter, due to calorie burn. For these reasons, those experiencing occasional or long-lasting sciatica may find effective relief with infrared heat therapy.
Not sure if you have sciatica? A physical examination and tests can be done by your doctor to diagnose the pain you are experiencing. Because sciatic nerve pain can linger in the body for anywhere from a few days to a year (in serious cases) it’s necessary for some to find a pain relief solution that can be utilized long-term. For this reason, incorporating stretches, infrared sessions and lifestyle changes into your routine may be a necessary, yet natural way to find sciatica relief fast!