The best way to stop sciatica pain—which starts in your lower back and worsens as it shoots down the back of your thigh—is to treat the underlying condition that’s causing it. But if you experience a sudden sciatica flare-up and need immediate pain relief, try out these tips in addition to talking to your doctor.
1. Apply heat or ice
For many people with sciatica pain, having heat or cold therapy on hand is the first line of defense. Heating pads and ice packs are relatively inexpensive, easy to transport, and can deliver pain relief in a pinch.
- When your sciatica flare-up starts, wrap some ice in a cloth towel and place it on your lower back for around 15 minutes. This may reduce local inflammation and ease the sharp pain. If your skin begins to feel numb, remove the ice pack immediately.
- To apply heat therapy, position an electric heating pad or hot water bottle against your lower back, buttock, or the back of your leg for 10 to 20 minutes. The warmth dilates blood vessels, increasing blood flow and relaxing your muscles, so you may feel less pain and find it easier to stretch or exercise afterward.
You may want to alternate heat and ice treatment to see which brings you the most relief.
2. Stretch your hamstrings and do low-impact aerobic exercises
It may seem counterintuitive, but resting for more than a day or so does not make sciatica pain go away. Stretching and exercising, on the other hand, can increase blood circulation to the injured areas and help lessen your pain.
- If you do not regularly stretch your hamstrings, they can become tight and inflexible, aggravating sciatica pain. One simple way to loosen these muscles is to perform a seated hamstring stretch. To begin, sit on the edge of a chair with 1 foot flat on the floor and the other leg straightened out in front of you with the heel on the floor. Then lean forward, keeping your shoulders and head upright, until you feel a gentle stretch behind your leg. Hold for 30 seconds.
- Low-impact aerobic exercise can release endorphins and reduce the inflammation around your sciatic nerve roots. Taking a walk around your neighborhood or on a treadmill, with short strides and an upright posture, is a simple place to start. Many people with sciatica pain also find relief when they try aquatic therapy.
Exercises that strengthen your core can also benefit you, as these muscles support your spine and help protect you from injury when twisting or extending. A stronger core may help prevent or lessen sciatica pain in the future.
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3. Take over-the-counter pain medications
Your pain is likely due to inflammation of the sciatic nerve, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen (e.g., Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (e.g., Aleve), can help reduce the inflammation and lessen the pain. Discuss the benefits and drawbacks of various over-the-counter medications with your doctor or pharmacist before using them, and always follow the instructions on the label.
4. Give yourself a massage
When sciatica pain strikes, you probably can’t get an immediate massage therapy appointment. You can, however, give yourself a relaxing massage using a tennis ball. To try out this DIY massage, simply lie on the floor and place the tennis ball under your buttock or upper thigh, slowly rolling over it until you find a tender spot to focus on. The gentle pressure from the tennis ball may provide relief similar to what you would get from a typical pressure-point massage. Stop right away if you feel sudden pain.
5. Try mind-body techniques
One pain management option involves using the power of your mind to lower your perception of sciatica pain. Mind-body techniques, which include deep breathing exercises, meditation, guided imagery, and cognitive behavioral therapy, can be helpful in relaxing your muscles and, to an extent, increasing your sense of control over the pain. You may find that these techniques help reduce anxiety and depression often associated with chronic pain.
Since your sciatica pain may be triggered by one of many underlying conditions, it is not likely that all these tips will work for you. If your sciatica pain gets worse and severely disrupts your daily life, check with your doctor about additional pain relief options, which may include chiropractic manipulation, epidural steroid injections, and more.