The sciatic nerve is the biggest nerve in the lower limbs. The sciatic nerve can be compressed in so many ways which can cause pain in the legs.
Have you ever crossed your leg for so long and suddenly felt tingling or pin and needle sensations in your leg to your toes or have you ever sat down on the toilet bowl for so long and felt like your leg was heavy when standing up? If you have, then you compressed your sciatic nerve.
What We Need To Know About The Sciatic Nerve
The sciatic nerve is the widest and longest nerve in the body. It starts from the back to the buttocks and down the legs.
It is formed from nerve fibers that originate from the fourth lumbar vertebrae to the third sacral vertebrae. The nerve passes through the piriformis muscle, which is a flat muscle in the buttocks and exits the pelvis through the greater sciatic foramen. It then travels down the back of the thigh until it gets behind the knee joint.
The nerve divides into two branches behind the knee. These branches are:
- The tibial nerve that continues down the back of the leg to the foot
- The common peroneal nerve goes to the front and side of the leg to the foot
What Causes Sciatic Nerve Pain?
Any compression to the sciatic nerve can cause sciatic nerve pain which is also known as Sciatica. The following conditions can cause compression to the sciatic nerve:
An intervertebral disc is found between two vertebrae to enable easy movement of the bones on each other. The disc has an outer layer and an inner layer. Sometimes, due to trauma or strain that may happen to the lower back, such as bending to lift a heavy object, we usually hear a pop like sound or a snap. This snap may be due to a tear of the outer layer of the disc which may cause the inner layer of the disc to pop out.
Since the sciatic nerve has its roots around the lumbar spine (waist), the popped out disc can compress the roots of the sciatic nerve and then we have a domino effect down the sciatic nerve causing sciatica.
As explained earlier, the nerve fibers come together at the piriformis muscle to form the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve can be compressed in the buttocks due to the tightness of the piriformis muscle or an overuse injury among athletes. because of the position of the piriformis muscle, it can cause more pain while sitting.
The nerves pass through spinal canals in the spine before going to the rest of the body. Spinal stenosis is a condition in which the spinal canal narrows and compresses the nerves passing through the canal. this can compress the sciatic nerve at the lumbosacral region.
This is a medical condition in which the spaces between each vertebra reduces compressing whatever is passing in between them. The sciatic nerve can be compressed by the vertebrae from its origin.
This is a medical condition in which a vertebra is displaced from the normal curvature of the spine. The vertebra can either be displaced forward or backward. The displacement of the vertebrae can cause compression to the sciatic nerve at the lumbar region.
Symptoms Of Sciatic Nerve Pain
- Tingling sensations in the legs
- The weakness of the muscles in the legs
- Pain at the back of the leg especially while sitting
- Waist pain
- Sometimes, swelling in the foot
How Is Sciatica Treated?
- Medications like ibuprofen and diclofenac or muscle relaxants are usually prescribed for sciatic pain
- Ice or heat packs may be used to relieve pain. Ice can be crushed in a damp towel and placed on the painful area for 15-20 minutes. If ice does not help, a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel can be placed on the painful area for 15 minutes. The two can be used as well by starting with ice and then using heat.
- Doctors refer to physiotherapists that carry out their assessments and treat the cause of the sciatic pain and also recommend stretching exercises. They will also educate you on proper lifting techniques and posture to avoid the pain from reoccurring.
Sciatic Nerve Stretches
Stretches to the sciatic nerve can help reduce and relieve pain. However, before you do any form of stretches, ensure you see a physiotherapist first as some of the stretches may cause more strain to your back and increase the pain. Some of the best sciatic nerve stretches that can be done are:
1. Child’s Pose
- Kneel on the floor with your palms also on the floor
- Slowly move your buttocks towards your heel as if you want to sit on your leg
- Do not move your palms at all during this stretch
- Hold for 10-30 secs
2. Piriformis Stretch
- Lie down on your back with knees bent
- Place the ankle of the leg that hurts on the knee of the other leg
- Place your hands at the back of the thigh of the unaffected leg
- Pull the unaffected leg with the affected leg’s ankle still on the knee towards your chest
- This stretches out the piriformis muscle and the sciatic nerve.
3. Sitting Hamstring stretch
- Sit on the edge the chair
- Stretch out your right leg in front of you with your knees straightened and the toes pointing towards the ceiling and the other leg bent
- While sitting, bend from your waist and reach for the toes of the right leg with your fingers
- You will feel a stretch at your waist and the posterior thigh of the right leg
- Hold for 10 -30 seconds and slowly release
- Repeat on the other leg
4. Standing Hamstring stretch
- Stand with your feet slightly apart
- Bend from your waist slowly
- Reach for your toes without bending your knees
- Hold for 30 secs and slowly go back to standing
- Place the heel of your right leg on a chair or stool
- Ensure your knees are not bent
- Bend slowly from your waist and reach towards your toes
- Sustain for 30 seconds and repeat on the other leg
5. Knee To Chest
- While lying on your back, bend your two knees
- Place your hands on the shin of the affected leg and hug the knee to your chest
- Hold for 30 seconds
- Release and repeat on the other leg
6. Seated Spinal Twist
- Sit upright on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you
- Bend one leg over the thigh of the second leg (left leg over the thigh of the right leg as shown in the picture above)
- With your left leg over your right thigh, place your right hand over the left knee and slowly twist your body towards the left
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side
7. Seated Hip Stretch
- Sit on a chair
- Place your right ankle on your left thigh
- Slowly move your upper body towards the floor
- Feel the stretch in your buttocks and hold for 30 seconds
- Repeat on the other leg
8. Downward Facing Dog
- Kneel on the floor with your palms firmly on the ground
- Lift your knees off the mat with your toes firmly on the ground
- Push your chest toward your legs without moving your arms
- Hold for 30 seconds then slowly release
How To Prevent Sciatica
Lift with your legs and not your back
- First, look at the load you want to carry. Can you carry it alone? If yes, then let’s go on but if your answer is no, call someone to help you.
- Bend your hips and knees. This will bring you to a squat position
- Look straight ahead and keep your back straight
- Ensure your feet are well balanced and spaced out
- Slowly lift by straightening your hips and knees. do not bend your back
- Keep the load close to your body
Maintain a proper posture at all times
- Make sure your buttocks touch the back of the chair
- Your shoulders should touch the backrest if any
- Your back should remain straight. An easy way to do this is to hold in your stomach.
- Your feet should be placed firmly on the floor
If you are an athlete, ensure you stretch before and after any sporting activity to prevent tightness or muscle strain in the legs or back.
Reduce your sitting time at work
Try and incorporate stress breaks into your office hours. After an hour or two of sitting, stand up and do some stretches or just walk around.