Understanding your back pain is an important step toward recovery. It can help you understand your condition, provide reassurance and ultimately, help you to get better.
So, what is a trapped sciatic nerve?
Sciatic nerve pain, also called sciatica, refers to the compression, irritation or sensitisation of the sciatic nerve. This may occur for various different reasons, for example, due to a herniated disc or from the piriformis muscle which is a small muscle located deep in the gluteal area.
When the sciatic nerve becomes irritated or compressed, you may experience pain, pins and needles, numbness in the lower back, buttocks, the back of the legs, or even down the calf and foot.
Though the symptoms of a trapped sciatic nerve can be painful, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any more serious than back pain without referred pain to the legs. Typically, as with back pain, the pain will go away by itself without any intervention. In most cases it doesn’t mean that there is a serious disc injury, that your disc has slipped or that your spine is out of place - so rest assured that although it may be bothersome at times, it can get better. With time and conservative treatment this is often the case.
When more serious causes have been ruled out evidence shows that treatment for a painful sciatic nerve doesn’t differ that much from other forms of lower back pain. Primarily, treatment involves education, exercises, and remaining physically active within a tolerable level. You should continue to perform your usual activities with modifications where necessary.
Exercises that work the back and trunk muscles, such as the bird-dog, the dead bug, or the plank, may benefit you and your pain levels and can be gradually progressed to restore and expand load capacity, strength and endurance.
In the early stages, it's a good idea to keep pain levels low. If the sciatic pain is recent and acute, avoid activities and movements that provoke it and worsen your pain. If the nerve is very irritable, you may want to avoid putting stretch on it in the early stages of recovery. However, don't completely rest it either. Similar to other forms of back pain, rest is not the answer! Try to be as physically active as possible and perform your normal activities that don't worsen the pain while making modifications if needed.
As the nerve pain becomes less irritable you can use less of a protective approach and more of an "expose" approach. Slowly start building things up again, and return to activities or exercises that were too painful to begin with. Eventually, prone press ups, lifting from the floor, running exercises plus hamstring and nerve stretches, can be incorporated into your exercise routine to help the sciatic nerve to become less sensitised so helping you to make a full recovery. That way, you can get back to feeling your best - free of pain.
If, however, you experience severe pain and radiating symptoms like reduced strength and numbness in the legs, then we recommend seeing your GP or a physiotherapist for further assessment.
- Basson et al (2017); The effectiveness of neural mobilization for neuromusculoskeletal conditions: A systematic review and meta-analysis
- Ropper et al (2015); Sciatica
- Balaque: Lancet clinical review: Non-specific low back pain
- Aikasinen (2006); Chapter 4. European guidelines for the management of chronic nonspecific low back pain.