It’s a tingling, numbness or weakness in the legs affecting a staggering 40 per cent of us – Osteopath Oliver Eaton shares his secrets on drug-free sciatica treatments
Last month, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker demanded ‘respect’ from media in Brussels after being asked whether he had consumed alcohol at a Nato summit.
‘I had sciatica and I had cramps in my legs [at the summit],’ he said. He spoke after video footage showed him staggering, chuckling, and being held up by colleagues at the event.
Indeed, sciatica is not glamourous, or trendy. But it’s incredibly common and affects some 40 per cent of the population, usually between 24 and 45.
The pain originates with the sciatic nerves. They are your body’s two largest nerves and are about as thick as your little finger. The nerves emanate from the lower lumbar spine and pass through the buttocks, down the back of each leg, to the soles of the feet and the big toes.
These nerves supply both sensation and motor function to the legs and are made up of several individual nerves that branch off from the spinal cord through our vertebrae.
It’s rare for sciatica to occur before the age of 20 due to the suppleness of the structures that surround the sciatic nerve.
As we age, those structures start to degenerate or become tight, leaving the nerve vulnerable to being pinched along its pathway.
Symptoms of sciatica
- Pain that is constant in only one side of the buttock or back of the leg
- Pain that is worse when sitting
- Numbness, tingling, burning or weakness in the buttocks or legs.
- The symptoms can be constant or develop when moving.
- A sharp pain that may make it difficult to stand up or walk
- Sharp shooting pain that travels down the leg in a line, often into the foot and toes
Research has shown that those who are obese, overweight or who smoke are at more risk of developing sciatica. Smoking has shown to dehydrate and degenerate spinal discs, leaving them vulnerable to bulging against a nerve.
Many people who suffer from sciatica often find it gets better within a few weeks on its own, while with others it may take many months. It all depends on what has caused it. It’s important to identify the cause as early as possible and seek treatment as quickly as you can as limping to avoid the pain can often trigger a separate set of symptoms.
So, what causes sciatica?
Cause #1 Lumbar herniated disc
Herniated discs occur when the gel-like material inside the disc pushes against the outer coating, causing it to bulge. This bulge can then push against the nerve that runs alongside it.
Additional terms used to refer to a herniated disc are slipped disc, prolapsed disc, bulging disc or protruding disc. The most common symptoms of a lumbar herniated disc is sciatica.
Cause #2 Degenerative disc disease
Discs, alongside cartilage in the body don’t have a blood supply. This means a disc’s ability to repair and regenerate isn’t as efficient as a muscle’s ability, for example.
As we age, the volume of fluid in the disc lessens, weakening the structure, leaving it vulnerable to bulging out against a nerve. This can then cause sciatic type pain if the disc that is bulging against the nerve is in the bottom third of the spine.
Cause #3 Lumbar spinal stenosis
Stenosis occurs when the space between the spinal joints are narrowed. You have nerves that travel next to this space, so they can often become irritated as the space between the joints lessen. It often develops over time as a result of degeneration in the spinal joints as we age, and is common in most people over the age of 60.
Cause #4 Piriformis syndrome
One of the most common causes of sciatica is when the sciatic nerve becomes pinched by the piriformis muscle, known as Piriformis Syndrome.
The muscle itself is one of the deep buttock muscles and in 30 per cent of the population the nerve runs directly through it, leaving these individuals more vulnerable to it pinching.
Humans weren’t designed to sit for as long as we do in the 21st century with the growth of deskbound jobs. This plays a role in the development of tension in the piriformis. The good thing is that it is one of the easiest forms of sciatica to resolve with alternative treatments.
Cause #5 Sacroiliac joint dysfunction
When the sacroiliac joint (which links the pelvis to the lowest part of the spine or tailbone) is irritated it has the ability to irritate the lowest lumbar nerve, as it runs alongside the joint, causing debilitating sciatic type pain as the joint is moved with minor movements such as walking.
Cause #6 Pregnancy
The weight of the baby can cause many of the muscles that surround the sciatic nerve to tighten up around it, causing symptoms of sciatica.
Also, during the third trimester of pregnancy a hormone called relaxin is relased.
This hormone does what it says in the name, relaxes the ligaments in the pelvis to allow for the baby to travel through easily during labour.
The relaxing of these ligaments can often cause the pelvis to misalign, which can pinch some of the nerves that run through that area.
Cause #7 Muscle strain
If any of the muscles along the pathway of the sciatic nerve suffer a strain, if it isn’t treated properly then it can cause scar tissue over that strain. This scar tissue can potentially put pressure on the sciatic nerve, causing pain.
Conventional treatment for sciatica
Prescription or over-the-counter medications can often be effective at reducing the symptoms of sciatica.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen can help if the sciatica is due to any inflammation pressing against the nerve.
If the pain is due to tension in the muscles tightening around the nerve then muscle relaxants such a diazepam can help. These aren’t long-term solutions though, and won’t address the root cause of your symptoms or help prevent them from coming back. Furthermore, long-term use of such drugs can have negative effects on the health of your stomach and liver.
To help reduce the symptoms naturally and prevent them from returning, a more structured treatment approach needs to be adopted to help address the causes of the pain.
8 natural treatments for sciatica
Heat and ice
Heat and ice can help for both acute and chronic cases of sciatica. If the sciatica is as a result of an acute injury, straining a muscle for example, then you can use a procedure called contrast bathing.
This involves placing ice or a cold compress over the area for 10 minutes and then immediately after placing heat over the area for 10 minutes. This can be repeated twice an hour if needed.
If the sciatica is a result of piriformis syndrome then sitting on a hot water bottle for 20 minutes under your buttock can help.
Taking a hot bath with epsom salts can also help sciatica and is the perfect home remedy. The minerals magnesium and sulphate found in epsom salts, are crucial for healthy nerve function. (Try Supersalt Epsom Muscle Relief, £5.35)
A hot bath combined with Epsom salt will provide you with relief from your sciatica. Make sure your lower back and legs are submerged in the water for at least 20 minutes.Try to have this bath at least three times a week for best results in aiding your sciatica.
Osteopathy is a system of alternative medicine that helps to both identify and address the root cause of an individual’s sciatica.
Several orthopaedics tests will be used to find out where the sciatic nerve is being pinched and then a combination of massage, stretching and gentle manipulation is used to take the pressure off the nerve.
Several stretches will also be prescribed to help sustain the results and prevent the symptoms from returning.
If the cause of an individual’s sciatica is the result of tension in the leg muscles tightening up around the nerve, then acupuncture can be effective at helping reduce this tension.
Hair-thin needles (which are usually not felt) are inserted into the affected muscles and this can be effective against sciatic pain
Again, if an individual’s sciatica is caused by tight muscles around the sciatic nerve then massage therapy can be an effective way of releasing those muscles, creating an environment for the sciatic nerve to operate without any irritation.
Osteopathy, acupuncture and massage have all been approved by the NICE Guidelines (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence).
Both NHS and private doctors in the UK use these guidelines to inform them of appropriate treatments.
4 supplements that can help
Supplements too can act as a more natural way to help with sciatica – rather than overdoing the prescription pain killers.
Glucosamine and chondroitin: these are structural components of cartilage, the tissue that cushions the joints. Both are produced naturally in the body but are also popular supplements for that added healthy bonus. Glucosamine and chondroitin can prevent the degeneration of joint cartilage. This well researched combo helps with joint pain and joint cushioning and therefore works well in helping to treat sciatica. Try Nutrabiotics Boswellia Joint Supplement that contains both nutrients, £19.99
B vitamins: specifically B12 vitamins, are not only great for overall nerve health and nerve damage but they can also be helpful in treating sciatica. Try Lifeplan’s Vitamin B12 tablets, £3.60.
Vitamin B12 promotes the regeneration and growth of nerve cells. Sciatic nerve pain, numbness & tingling, has been found in some causes to be caused and made worse by a deficiency of vitamin B12 in the body. Vitamin B12 can also be found in meat, poultry, fish and eggs.
Fish and algal oil: these healthy omegas will help to reduce joint inflammation. So if you are experiencing achy or stiff joints, fish and algal oil are important for providing you with pain relief. Try Pharma Nord’s Bio-fish oil, £7.95 or Biocare’s Vegan Omega 3 capsules, £13.95.
An imbalance between omega-3s and omega-6s is known to be a fundamental cause of inflammation. Taking a fish oil (omega-3) supplement, will help balance your fatty acids and reduce inflammation, therefore easing your sciatica nerve pain.
Turmeric: the new wonder spice, turmeric is another anti inflammatory agent rich in antioxidants to help with recovery and to assist with joint stiffness and reducing swelling Try Superfruit’s Organic Turmeric Powder, £6.10 from Healthista Shop. Turmeric is particularly helpful for treating sciatica pain that is caused by tense muscles or muscle spasms. Turmeric helps relieve pain and inflammation such as sciatica due to the herb’s ability to lower levels of certain enzymes that cause inflammation in the body.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Oliver Eaton is a qualified and registered osteopath, Medical Acupuncturist and Musculoskeletal Injection Therapist. He specialises in the treatment of sciatica, arthritis and headaches/migraines. Much of Oliver’s specialties were learnt through personal experience; suffering from a series of chronic conditions from which he made a full recovery using alternative medicine approaches.
Oliver uses the latest diagnostic approaches to help identify the root causes of an individual’s sciatica. Once identified, he is able to use osteopathy or acupuncture to both help to resolve the symptoms and prevent them from returning, without the use of medication. Website: prohealthclinic.co.uk