The do's and don'ts of sciatica

Doctor helping a patient with back pain

Have you felt sharp, shooting pain that stretches from your lower back, through your hips and buttocks, all the way down into your leg? You may be experiencing lumbar radiculopathy, which is better known as sciatica.

What is sciatica?

Sciatica refers to the pain you feel along the sciatic nerve, which is the longest nerve in the body. This discomfort happens when the nerve roots in the lower spine are being compressed. Herniated discs and bone spurs are typical causes.

Sciatica is more common in older adults due to the regular wear and tear that happens to the spine as we age. But younger people can also experience sciatic pain due to trauma from a fall, motor vehicle accident or from an autoimmune condition.

Tips for avoiding sciatica

Our bodies may show signs of decline as we age but there are several lifestyle choices you can make to reduce the odds of suffering from sciatica.

DO maintain a healthy diet. I suggest plenty of fruits and vegetables. Foods high in antioxidants like berries, kale, beans, artichokes, apples and pecans are top choices. Make sure you’re moderating the amount of red meat and grain in your diet. Prioritize staying hydrated, too.

Why is your diet related to lower back pain? It’s because the foods you eat supply the minerals and vitamins your bones and muscles need to recuperate. Our bodies are constantly breaking down and the fuel we give it helps the rebuilding process. Healthy foods also reduce inflammation. If your diet is top-notch, then your spine and nerves are less likely to show degeneration.

DO engage in moderate exercise. Working out for 30-45 minutes at least three times per week is advisable. Taking a walk at lunchtime is one strategy for fitting in regular exercise.

DON’T carry excess weight. Maintaining a healthy weight is very important. Those who are overweight or obese are putting extra stress on their spine, and keeping their body in a constant state of inflammation. This condition increases the risk of damaging the sciatic nerve.

DON’T smoke. Smoking decreases blood flow, including to the muscles around your spine and increases inflammation of the nerves. Nicotine makes it harder for spinal disc cells to recover and that can also lead to sciatica.

How sciatica is treated

There are steps you can take at home to ease sciatica symptoms. It’s worth noting that persistent pain needs to be addressed with a doctor.

DON’T stay in bed too long. Laying around for days at a time can actually do more harm than good. Muscles lose shape and tension if they’re not being used, and it’s much harder to build back muscle tone once it’s gone.

DO stay active. Engage in regular activities like taking the dog for a walk and moving around the house like normal. This will prevent your body from becoming stiff.

DON’T overdo it. Take a break from your spin and yoga classes for at least a few days to give your body a chance to rest. Aquatherapy is a great exercise option once you’re ready for it.

DO use heating pads and ice to ease the pain. It’s fine to alternate between both remedies. It’s also okay to allow your partner to massage the area. But avoid deep-tissue massages which will inflame the sciatic nerve more.

DO take over-the-counter medications containing acetaminophen and ibuprofen but DON’T overdo it. If you take too much medication, your body may be tricked into doing too much physical activity and you’ll end up in worse pain than before. Plus, chronic sciatica can occur over months and even years. Long-term use of these over-the-counter medicines can damage the heart and kidneys.

DON’T wait too long to call the doctor. Not only is sciatica a painful experience, but it could also be an indicator of another health issue. It’s best to find the root of the problem sooner rather than later in order to achieve a better outcome.

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