Why It Hurts
Sciatic nerves go from your lower back into your legs. When something presses on them, like a slipped disk or a bone spur, you get sciatica. You might have a burning sensation, numbness, weakness, or pain. Some people say it feels like pins and needles, while others say it's more like getting an electrical shock or being stabbed with a knife. However it feels to you, there are many ways to get relief.
Give It Time
"Wait and see" might not be what you want to hear when you're in pain, but it works. The passage of time is probably the best proven treatment. About 80%-90% of people with sciatic nerve pain get better within a few weeks.
While a little extra pampering may be in order, don't stay off your feet for long. Too much bed rest can weaken your muscles. If you don't feel up to your usual workout, it's smart to listen to your body's signals. But try not to sit a lot or the pain might get worse.
If your pain isn't too severe, it's a good idea to stretch, go for short walks, and do any other physical activities that you feel up to. It's especially important to try to stretch your lower back, since that's where something may be pinching your sciatic nerve.
Heat Things Up or Cool Them Down
Hot and cold may be opposites, but both can help keep you comfortable. Cold treatment is usually best for an injury that just happened. After about 72 hours, doctors usually suggest switching to heat. Use an ice pack that's wrapped in a towel or try a heating pad for about 15-20 minutes at a time. Be careful not to burn your skin.
Try Over-the-Counter Meds
NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen may help ease your pain as well as bring down inflammation. Take the dose on the drug's label unless your doctor gives you special instructions.
Ask About a Prescription
If home remedies aren't helping, talk to your doctor. There are many prescription meds, like muscle relaxers and higher-strength NSAIDs, that might make you feel better. Anti-seizure drugs, like gabapentin, also seem to help some people.
Work With a Physical Therapist
Physical therapy can help you correct poor posture or strengthen the muscles that support your lower back. The therapist will create an exercise program, including stretching techniques, that you can do at home.
Get an Epidural
Still not feeling better? Your doctor may suggest you get an epidural injection -- a shot of steroid medication into your spine -- especially if you've been in pain for more than 6 months. Studies show mixed results, though, about how well it works. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons.
Give Acupuncture a Try
This ancient Chinese medicine practice is starting to gain respect from mainstream Western doctors, and for good reason. Some research shows that it may work even better than traditional treatment for back pain. There's little risk as long as you find a licensed practitioner.
Take a Yoga Class
It may not be a cure-all, but it might help you feel better. Try a type called Iyengar yoga, which emphasizes good posture. Research shows that it cuts pain and lets you move around more easily.
Get a Massage
A professional rubdown isn't just about relaxation. Research shows that massage therapy eases pain and improves how well you can move your lower back. It also helps get blood flowing, which encourages your body to heal itself. Find a therapist who specializes in back pain and can also work some assisted stretching into your session.
Take Charge of Stress
No, the pain isn't "all in your head," but your emotions can play a role. Stress causes your muscles to tense up and also makes the pain seem worse. Biofeedback, which shows you how your thinking and behavior affects your breathing and heart rate, might offer some relief. You could also try cognitive behavioral therapy. You'll work with a mental health expert who will help you change your behaviors and thoughts.
When to Call Your Doctor
Usually sciatica is painful but not dangerous. But there are times you'll want to call your doctor right away. Get in touch with them if you have a fever, blood in your urine, trouble controlling your bowels or bladder, or pain that's so bad it wakes you up at night.