Sciatic Pain—Natural Treatments & Home Remedies
Sciatica, or pain along the sciatic nerve and in the lower back, can be overwhelming. It can send shooting or burning pain from the lower back, into the hip, and all the way to the feet. It hurts to sit, to walk, and even to lie in bed.
Sciatic pain can be caused by damaged discs, inflamed tissues surrounding the nerve, and a chronically tight piriformis muscle that compresses the nerve. Long-term compression can lead to nerve damage, so it's best to treat this early.
Once you have found the cause of your back pain, you can use the right natural treatments to find pain relief.
Note: I am not a doctor or physical therapist, although I have had chronic sciatica since I was a young teenager. I understand the frustrations when searching for pain relief.
Please see your doctor to identify the actual cause of your pain, and determine which of the following treatments are appropriate for you.
What I Will Cover
These are the topics I will cover in this article.
- What is sciatica?
- Natural pain relief - relaxation, ice and heat
- Gentle movement - key to sciatica relief
- Posture and ergonomics - walk, lift, sit and sleep with a balanced posture
- Alexander technique - posture correction
- Piriformis stretches - reduce compression on the sciatic nerve
- McKenzie exercises - designed to relieve back pain
- Physiotherapy exercises - stretches and ball work
- Yoga poses - relieve nerve pain
- Back strengthening yoga - prevent sciatica from returning
- Unproven therapies - acupuncture, TENS, traction and herbs
What Is Sciatica?
Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve is compressed due to inflammation or physical damage. It can occur on one side only, or on both sides, and may cause numbness and weakness in addition to muscle and joint pain.
Sciatica can have a number of causes:
- bulging or herniated disc
- narrowing of the spinal column
- inflammation of the soft tissues in the surrounding areas
- short or spasming piriformis muscle in the buttock (piriformis syndrome)
Over 80% of people in industrialized countries will have lower back pain during their life. This is one of the greatest causes of employees being unable to work. Most acute sciatic pain cases recover within 6 weeks, however a small number develop chronic sciatica.1
A standard western medical treatment for back pain is paracetamol or low-dose non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen. However, they highly recommend that you keep moving, gently: no bed rest.
Medications commonly prescribed for sciatica work to calm the pain and inflammation in the short term, but they don't stop it from recurring.
One of the most popular books for back pain self-treatment by pain expert and posture specialist, Esther Gokhale. She delves into more detail about many of the areas I cover in this article, and explains how the spine and muscles should function.
Natural Relief for Sciatic Pain
Many natural and physical therapies, and simple lifestyle changes, can provide pain relief and prevent it from returning.
- A healthy diet improves your body's ability to heal. Use citrus fruits and juices, such as lime juice - vitamin C boosts your immune system, prevents serious illnesses, and reduces the swelling around the nerve.
- Proper posture, healthy weight, ergonomic working environments and an active lifestyle all play important roles in treating and preventing pain.
- Physiotherapy exercises may help recover and maintain range of movement in the spine and hips, and prevent the pain from recurring.
- Relaxation techniques help you manage and reduce the psychological impact of chronic pain.
Relaxing the Muscles Around the Irritated Nerve
Rest at regular intervals, in postures chosen to relieve pain. Intentionally relax all the muscles in your body in these positions:
- Lay on your stomach with a pillow or rolled towel underneath your hips.
- Lay on your stomach with one leg bent and out to one side - the first aid recovery pose. Put a pillow under the knee to remove any strain on your back.
- My favorite: Lay on your back with a pillow under your head. Rest your feet on a chair so that your knees are bent and your lower back is flat against the floor.
Heat, Ice, and Massage
- Ice: If you have acute pain after an injury, apply ice to the lower back for 10 minutes every few hours. Ice reduces inflammation and provides temporary pain relief in the first few days after your injury.
- Heat: If you have longer-term pain, apply heat to the lower back and hips to encourage circulation and tissue repair, relax the surrounding muscles and reduce pain. A hot bath or shower relaxes the muscles and calms the nerve.
- Menthol-and capsaicin-based sports rubs or plasters may provide short term relief of chronic back pain.
- Massage and spinal manipulation may provide some short term relief, but should only be performed on sciatica patients by qualified and experienced practitioners.
- Staying active has been shown time and time again, to have better results than bed rest for back pain.1,2,3 Staying in one position or doing one activity for a long time makes back pain worse. Take regular breaks and move around.
- Walking gently with good posture can provide pain relief from acute back pain. When my sciatic flares: I stop, gently stretch my hamstrings, do some gentle standing twists, forward bends, and lightly massage the sore areas. I can then keep walking carefully until I get home to my trusty heat pack.
Posture and Ergonomics
- Correct posture and ergonomics: Use a balanced posture in all activities to prevent pain.
- Walking and standing: Use smooth, gentle and relaxed movements - tense muscles increase the pain. Stand tall, and make sure your lower back is not curved. Keep your buttocks tucked in.
- Carrying: Never carry a bag on one shoulder, or all the shopping bags in one hand. Distribute weight evenly on both shoulders, and in both hands. Use backpacks, not shoulder bags. My doctor and physiotherapist believe that my heavy, single-shoulder school bag was a trigger for the sciatica starting in my teens. I wish my school had allowed backpacks!
- Lifting, reaching, bending, and twisting: Avoid heavy lifting if possible. If you must lift something, don't bend over or twist your back. Use your knees to lift and your feet to turn. Avoid twisting when reaching for something above your head or below your waist. Try not to pick up children. Kneel down if you need to reach something low.
- Sitting: Use a chair which supports your lower back. Position your knees at the same level as your hips, with your feet flat on the ground. A lower back pillow, or rolled towel will support your lower back. Use the arms of the chair to help you sit or stand.
- Note: Constantly sitting tightens the piriformis muscle. Get up and stretch regularly. I prefer to sit with my feet up, sometimes with a towel or pillow under my knees.
- Driving: Avoid driving when the pain is severe. Use a pillow or lumbar roll to support the lower back and maintain a correct sitting posture.
- Sleeping: A firm mattress with one supportive pillow under your head encourages good sleeping posture. An extra, soft pillow between the knees may provide sciatic relief. Be careful not to twist or place strain on your back when getting into or out of bed.
The Alexander technique (for correct posture and movement), taught to back pain sufferers in a randomized trial, was shown to reduce and control their back pain symptoms.4
This technique is used by singers and musicians to maintain correct and healthy posture and can reduce sciatic pain. The best way to learn the Alexander technique is to find a teacher who will train you in a series of classes, and will give you additional exercises to do at home.
Designed by physiotherapist Robin McKenzie in the 1950s to treat a variety lower back problems, including herniated discs and sciatica, the McKenzie exercises can relieve lower back and leg pain.
Your physiotherapist or specialist will help you perform the press-up exercises safely, showing your the correct form. Many back pain patients report fantastic results with leg-pain reduction, even in the first week, when exercises are done regularly.
Tip: When your pain is better under control, the gentle press-up can be strengthened into the yoga cobra pose.
If your pain is caused by pressure from a short or cramped piriformus muscle (the muscle that runs into your hip and across the buttock) you may have piriformis syndrome. This syndrome is diagnosed by ruling out all spinal disc and bone problems.
Piriformis syndrome may appear on a nerve conductance test. Electrical signals are slower when the nerve is strangled by the piriformis muscle.
Runners, cyclists and rowers—anyone who bends forward at their hips a lot and overuses these muscles—is at risk of developing back and leg pain.
- Lay on your back with one foot on a wall, knee bent at right angles. rest the other foot just above the bent knee on your thigh, and hold for 60 seconds and relax.
- Repeat on the other side.
If you don't feel enough of a stretch, move closer to the wall bringing your knee closer to your shoulders.
Physiotherapy exercises should be done daily to relieve back pain, correct improper posture, and strengthen the back and core abdominal muscles.
- Use a yoga mat or folded blankets to make the surface softer, especially when lying on your back.
- Balance balls are great for strengthening core abdominal and back muscles, and can be used as a chair when traditional seats hurt.
- Choose a good quality anti-burst balance ball that is the right size for you.
- If you want to do strength training with your ball, look at the max weight. You'll need a strong ball!
Exercises and Stretches
- Single knee to chest: Lie on your back, legs straight, with a pillow under your knees. Pull one knee into your chest, feel the stretch through the hip, buttock and into the back. Hold for 30 seconds, and repeat on the other side. Repeat this many times.
- Back massaging circles: Lie on your back, both legs gently pulled towards chest. Circle your knees so that the lower back is gently massaged. This may hurt significantly in the beginning, so be gentle. You can do this with a balance ball under your lower calves.
- Core muscle contractions: Lie on your back, legs straight, with a pillow under your knees. Contract only the deep muscles that stabilize the spine, breathe as normally and as relaxed as possible. Hold for 30 seconds then release. Repeat many times. This is surprisingly difficult to do!
- Lying twist: Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Stretch your arms at shoulder height, away from your body. Drop your knees to one side, and turn your head to the other. Be gentle! Hold for 30 seconds, and repeat on the other side.
- Balance ball bridge: Lie on your back with a balance ball under your calves. Keep your shoulders and neck on the ground and raise your pelvis so that your back and upper legs are in a straight line. Drop your pelvis slowly to the ground. Repeat 10-15 times. If you don't have a balance ball, use a chair under your calves.
- Balance ball diagonal arm/leg raise: Lie with your stomach on the balance ball, legs and arms on the ground, shoulder width apart. Raise your right arm and left leg horizontal with the floor. Hold for 5 seconds, then release and repeat on the other side. Repeat these 10-15 times. Do this exercise on your hand and knees if you don't have a balance ball.
Important: Check with a doctor or physiotherapist, start gently and relax. Never strain to hold a pose in yoga - it is not a competition. Warm up and cool down with light aerobic movements and gentle stretches to avoid injury.
If you find yoga too strenuous or painful, tai chi may be more appropriate.
- Cat-cow pose relieves pressure and increases mobility in the back (marjariasana).
- Standing forward bend loosens the hips, stretching the hamstrings and lower back (uttanasana).
- Head-to-knee pose stretches the lower back and hips (janu sirsasana).
- Big-toe pose stretches the hamstrings and relieves lower back pain (supta padangusthana).
- a butterfly leg pose opens and loosens the hips (baddha konnasana).
- Fire-log pose opens the hips (agnistambhasana).
- Lower back twist loosens the back muscles (bharadvajasana).
- Sage's pose loosens the back muscles (marichyasana).
The Best Yoga Stretches for Low Back Pain
The following yoga demonstration puts my favorite go-to stretches into a gentle flow. These are great for sciatica caused by cramped muscles and piriformis syndrome.
Be careful when attempting the strengthening poses. If at any time your nerve twinges, stop, stretch gently and relax.
- Extended side-angle pose stretches the outside of the leg and chest, and strengthens the back (utthita parsvakonasana).
- Warrior pose variations strengthen the legs and lower back (virabhadrasana).
- Cobra pose strengthens the back, but be careful not to over-stretch (bhujangasana).
- Downward-facing dog lengthens and strengthens the back and arms (adho mukha svanasana).
Many therapies have been suggested for sciatic pain, but few have been proven to work scientifically.
Acupuncture, acupressure, herbs, TENS, ultrasound, and traction have had mixed or poor results in studies, and are not usually recommended by doctors. Most of these physical therapies aren't likely to worsen your condition, but check with your doctor before trying one.
If you do find an alternative therapy that does provide relief, then continue to use it!
Be aware that herbs (both eastern and western) are processed in your body. Make sure the ingredients are not dangerous to your kidneys, liver, stomach, and that you aren't allergic to anything.
Avoid back braces—they have longer-term drawbacks, such as encouraging poor posture and weakening muscles.1
Famous People with Sciatica
Did you know that the following famous people have sciatica?
- Debbie Allen - American dancer and choreographer.
- James Cagney - American stage and film actor.
- Duncan Ferguson - Scottish ex-footballer who played for Everton and Newcastle United.
- Eileen Joyce - Australian concert pianist.
- Gabby Logan - Welsh TV presenter on the BBC, and ex-gymnast.
- Bela Lugosi - Hungarian actor, famous for playing Dracula on stage and in film.
- Rosa Mota - Portuguese marathon runner and gold medalist.
- Cost Action B13 - Low back pain: guidelines for its management, European Commission Research Directorate General, accessed March 2012.
- Advice to rest in bed versus advice to stay active for acute low-back pain and sciatica, K.T. Dahm, et.al., Cochrane database, June 2010, 16:(6)
- Guideline update: what's the best approach to acute low back pain? S.M. Bach, et.al., Journal of Family Practice, December 2009, 58(12):E1
- Randomised controlled trial of Alexander technique lessons, exercise, and massage (ATEAM) for chronic and recurrent back pain, P. Little, et.al, British Medical Journal, 2008, 337:a884
- Yoga Journal - Therapeutic Focus - Sciatica
- Yoga Learning Center
What is the best way for you to relieve sciatic pain at home, naturally?
Let us know in the comments below!