What Causes Sciatic Nerve Pain?
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It’s common to confuse sciatic nerve pain with general back pain, but sciatica is not primarily back pain. More often, it’s a literal "pain in the butt" or pain that feels like it’s traveling down one of your legs. In fact, if you only feel back pain, you likely don’t have sciatica. It can help to review photos of the sciatic nerve to better understand where it is in your body. Pain that aligns with these areas — anywhere from your lower back down through your leg — might be sciatica.
Generally, sciatica occurs when something rubs or puts pressure on your sciatic nerve. This can happen in several ways. The most common is a slipped disc, which happens when the soft tissue between your spine bones bulges out. Another cause is spinal stenosis, which happens when the opening narrows in your spine in the area where the nerves pass through. Additionally, a condition called spondylolisthesis, which happens when a bone in your spine slips out of position, can lead to sciatica. Risk factors of sciatica include prolonged sitting, obesity, age, diabetes and an occupation that requires a lot of heavy lifting, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you experience sharp, burning or shooting pain in your buttocks or the backs of your legs, it may be an indication that you have sciatica. Numbness in your leg in the area where the nerve runs or a pins-and-needles sensation in your feet are other signs. If you have sciatica, you can see if it improves from a few weeks of home treatments, which consist mostly of sciatic nerve stretches and exercises. However, if you don't see improvement, if the pain gets worse or if it prevents you from doing your normal activities, it's time to see a doctor.
Several specific stretches can relieve sciatic nerve pain, though it's best to check with a doctor before you attempt them to avoid injuring yourself. Surrounding the sciatic nerve is the piriformis, a tiny muscle that helps you move your feet, upper legs and hips away from your body. Stretching out the piriformis often provides sciatic nerve pain relief.
The following stretches are common recommendations from physical therapists as home treatments for sciatic nerve pain. Doing several of these every day may improve your pain. Use photos and videos of each technique to best understand how to stretch your sciatic nerve correctly.
Knees to Chest Stretch
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Begin lying flat on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Next, slowly bend your knees and bring them toward your chest. Hold this position for 30 seconds, and then release and relax to your initial position. Be sure to use smooth, controlled motions while you stretch to prevent strain on your back muscles.
Seated Hip Stretch
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If you’d rather not get down on the floor, you can do this sciatic nerve stretch in a chair. It’s also a convenient option to try while you’re at work. Begin by sitting in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Your knees should be bent at a 90-degree angle. Next, raise one leg up to rest your ankle on the opposite thigh just above the knee. Taking deep breaths, slowly bend forward over your crossed leg. Hold this position for 10 seconds before releasing and returning to the opening position. Repeat the stretch on the opposite side.
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Start by lying on your stomach with your legs extended, touching each other. Your palms should be on the floor beside your chest with your elbows bent, almost like you’re about to do a pushup. For a partial cobra, push up from your palms until your arms are partially straight and your chest is off the floor at an angle of around 45 degrees. For the full cobra, fully straighten your arms so your elbows are no longer bent. Your chest will be much higher off the floor. Hold this position for five seconds before returning to the starting position. Repeat this stretch several times.
Standing Hamstring Stretch
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This stretch starts you out in a standing position with your feet together. Lift one leg up and rest it on a sturdy ledge or table that’s about the same height as your knees. Your stretched leg should be straight, but your knee shouldn’t be completely locked. Next, bend forward at your waist, keeping your spine straight until you feel a stretch along the back of your leg. Hold here for 20 seconds and then release and return to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite leg.