By Max W. Cohen, MD, FAAOS, of Spine & Scoliosis Specialists

     Sciatic nerve pain can take many forms and is a symptom of a number of conditions. The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in the body. When that nerve is crowded or pinched, the result is pain that usually runs down the lower body. Sciatic nerve pain can take different forms, such as tingling, burning, aching or stabbing. Numbness can also be present. Those who suffer from sciatica have several options for self-care at home, and surgery is rarely needed.

Preventing sciatica pain

     Not all cases can be prevented. For example, an accidental fall can cause injury. Pregnancy can put strain on the back. Some diseases can also cause the condition. However, we can take care to keep our backs healthy. Experts agree there are some key ways to protect our back and potentially prevent sciatica:

1. Lift items correctly.

2. Practice good posture.

3. Don’t sit for extended periods of time.

4. Don’t smoke.


     Non-surgical treatment could include physical therapy or medicine, such as pain relievers or anti-inflammatory. Sometimes doctors will recommend spinal injections of anti-inflammatory medicine.

     Those who suffer from sciatica can practice some self-care measures at home to help ease their symptoms.

How to Stretch Safely With Sciatica

     When stretching to help with sciatica, stretch only until you feel a gentle tension in your limb or other body part. Hold the stretch for at least 10 seconds initially, and build up to holding the stretch for at least 30 seconds. Don’t bounce as you stretch, and don’t hold your breath; breathe normally.

     An easy hamstring stretch for people with sciatica is to lie on your back, raise one leg in the air, wrap a towel or strap around the raised thigh or foot, and support your leg with the towel while gently straightening your knee. The leg on the floor can be bent or straight, whichever is more comfortable. You should feel a stretch along the back of your leg.

     Another option is to sit on the edge of a chair with both feet firmly on the floor. Extend one leg and flex the foot, so the weight of your leg is resting on your heel. Keeping your back “straight,” gently rock forward on your sit bones so your navel moves slightly toward your leg. You should feel a stretch along the back of your leg.

     When you stretch, do it with the goal of feeling better, not becoming more flexible or increasing your range of motion. Over time you may become more flexible and increase your range of motion, but these gains tend to happen slowly, with regular practice.

     Pushing (or pulling) too hard in a stretch can cause tiny tears in your muscles, tendons, and ligaments, which will hurt and can cause you to become less flexible, not more.

Grab the Ice Pack and Heating Pad

     Alternating heat and ice therapy can provide immediate relief of sciatic nerve pain. Ice can help reduce inflammation, while heat encourages blood flow to the painful area (which speeds healing). Heat and ice may also help ease painful muscle spasms that often accompany sciatica. Apply an ice pack to the painful area for 15 minutes once every hour, and then apply heat for 15 minutes every 2 or 3 hours. Remember to always use a barrier (like a towel) to protect your skin when using heat or ice, and never sleep while using heat or ice therapy.

Steroid Injections

     For severe sciatica pain, a physician may recommend an epidural steroid injection, in which a corticosteroid medicine is injected near the spinal nerve roots. The relief from an epidural steroid injection can last for a few months or longer.

Max W. Cohen, MD, FAAOS, the founding physician of Spine & Scoliosis Specialists, is the only doctor in the Triad with double fellowship training in spine and scoliosis surgery. He has treated tens of thousands of patients and performed thousands of surgeries since he began practicing in 2002. He completed his training at Cornell University’s prestigious Hospital for Special Surgery, the top-ranked orthopaedics hospital in the U.S., according to U.S. News & World Report.