Signs and Symptoms of Sciatic Pain
Sciatic pain can be a confusing symptom and one that is not always easily diagnosed or associated with a cause. The first signs of sciatic pain, also known as sciatica or sciatic nerve pain, aren’t the same for everyone.
Sciatica is a symptom of another problem, which is one reason it’s hard to recognize in the early stages.
Some patients will report low back pain and other will only mention leg pain. Most mention both, but at first it may not be apparent whether the issue is primarily due to a problem with the back, spine, or another part of the muscular-skeletal system.
For patients that have true sciatica, though, eventually, the pain will course through the sciatic nerve which runs the length of each leg from the buttock down to the foot. A person with sciatica will often start out with bursts of pain in the nerve roots present around the lower spine. This is because of a pinched nerve and/or a herniated disk in the lower back.
Unless something is done to relieve the pressure or normal healing takes place, the pain will travel and intensify in one leg. Sciatic nerve pain can, therefore, be felt across the pelvis and lower back or in the legs.
Some people feel pain from the back through the buttocks and down to the knee. In more severe cases it may be felt all the way to the foot.
Treatments for Sciatica
Doctors and physical therapists can offer a wide array of treatments for sciatica. The most extreme sciatic treatment is surgery which can be used to relieve the pressure on the nerves in the low back.
Surgery is usually an option considered only when other options have been tried. Surgery isn’t 100% effective, in some cases creates new problems, and sometimes has to be done repeatedly to remain effective.
Professionals agree that exercises and stretching can be a very effective treatment for for sciatica if performed correctly and consistently. Exercise and stretching are not always popular with patients, since they take some time to work and require effort that may feel even more painful in the earliest stages.
When regular stretching and exercise is utilized routinely, though, the results can sometimes be more effective and longer-lasting than surgical alternatives.
A popular home treatment for sciatica that can be used to relieve sciatic pain almost immediately is therapeutic use of a TENS unit. TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation.
A great side-effect of using a TENS unit is that for many patients, all or part of the sciatic pain is relieved with the first application of this therapy.
No oral or injectable medications are involved, there are no negative side effects, and the TENS unit can be used at home along with stretching and exercise. As the supportive muscle is strengthened and made more flexible, the underlying condition can be resolved.
The stimulation from the TENS unit relieves pain during this process and helps with blood flow and flexion throughout.
TENS Unit Pad Placement for Sciatica
This is the ideal placement for the 4 pads for this condition:
Want to know where else a TENS unit can be used? Check out my placement guide: TENS placement guide.
Studies Proving Effectiveness of a TENS Unit for Sciatica
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is widely used for treatment of chronic pain in general. TENS can be used for muscle soreness due to exercise, pain due to muscle strain or mild injury, therapy for tight or weak muscles and more.
In a study done on fixed-site transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (FS-TENS) the conclusion was that TENS is a safe and effective option for treating chronic low back pain and lower extremity pain.
A TENS unit can be purchased with a doctor’s prescription and may be covered by insurance, or a wide variety of units are available over the counter to patients who want to order their own.
Most TENS units are simple to use, inexpensive and low strength. Stronger and more elaborate units are also available without a prescription.
Need help picking a TENS unit? –What is the best TENS unit to buy?
A TENS unit will come with a battery-powered control device that puts out electrical impulses to 4 pads that attach to your skin with a special gel or an adhesive already present on the pads. You will want to try it first on very low frequencies and as you adjust, you will find what is right for you. You will typically feel a light tingling sensation at first.
Some people feel it as more of a pinch or a prick and it may feel uncomfortable, but once you get used to it you will probably find it soothing. It brings blood flow to the area where the pad is attached, and if the frequency is high enough it may also cause contractions in the muscle that are normal and therapeutic.
What stretches can I do for sciatic nerve pain?
For the best chance of relieving all sciatic pain without surgical intervention, you want to combine the TENS unit with a stretching and exercise routine. Stretching is usually the best start since it lengthens the ligaments, tendons, and muscles and makes them more pliable to handle the exercise that will come next.
For those who would have trouble starting out with floor-level stretches, this is a great standing stretch:
- Start with the leg on the side where you feel less pain to ease into this. Place your foot on a surface at or below the level of your hips. If you are able to do it, choose a spot at hip level, perhaps a couch arm, a tail chair seat or a staircase step. If that height is impossible or very uncomfortable, choose something lower like a shorter chair, bed or ottoman.
- Keep your knee very slightly bent and hold your foot straight so that your toes are pointing toward the ceiling. Bend toward your foot slowly. When you feel a stretch in your hamstring, hip, and low back, you are just right.
- Hold the stretch in a position that is just barely uncomfortable to stretch the muscles, but if you feel any pain at all, you are going too far.
- Switch to the leg on the side where you feel more pain and repeat the exercise as gently as you need to. As you do this stretch every day, you’ll be able to make more progress.
When you are able to sit on the floor or another flat surface, add this next exercise:
- Sit with your legs straight out with your feet flexed toward the ceiling.
- Bend the left leg and place your foot flat on the outside of your opposite knee.
- Place the right elbow on the outside of your left knee. Use your elbow to apply tension and gently twist your hips. If you feel any pain, stop immediately and do the stretch with less tension.
- Switch sides and repeat.
What kind of exercise is good for sciatica?
Exercise is just as important as stretching and using the TENS unit since you will need healthy blood flow to the disks, nerves, and muscles for healing.
Walking is one of the best exercises, to begin with. If you’ve been very sedate, start with just 5-10 minute walks and build up. Ideally, you want to walk 20-30 minutes a day or 30 minutes at least three times a week. If you find that walking causes intense pain even in small increments, start with water exercises first.
If you can find a gym that has underwater treadmills, you can work up to walking by doing underwater walking. If not, gentle swimming will do if you have no other options.
Many areas have free or low-cost water aerobics programs at the YMCA or public pools. These will give you more discipline and routine. No matter what you choose, water exercise puts less pressure on the back. Use water exercises until you are able to do walking on a regular treadmill, soft track or sidewalk.
As you gain strength and flexibility and have less pain while doing exercise and stretches, you can move on to more ordinary exercises and sports. Continue to use the TENS unit to treat even minor sciatic pain so that the problems don’t return. Maintaining healthy blood flow to the injured area is of great importance.
The TENS unit will also help you remain reasonably pain free during the healing period. If pain stops you from doing the stretching and exercising, you could relapse. This is one of many reasons why a TENS unit is an important part of the treatment of sciatic pain.
John Woodbury, Founder of Optimize Health 365, has used TENS units (and still does) to deal with neck, shoulder and lower back pain issues. He shares his tips/suggestions on how to use TENS units to relieve and reduce aches and pain.
To learn more check out optimizehealth365.com.