© AntonioGuillem | Getty Images
Your sciatic nerve is the main nerve supplying your leg. This large nerve leaves your spinal cord in your lower back and passes between the bones (vertebrae) of your spine. Pinching (compression) of the nerve where it passes between the spinal vertebrae is the usual cause of sciatica. Compression is usually due to a bulging or herniated spinal disc. Spinal discs are rubbery cushions located between vertebrae.
Sciatica is different than low back pain. Low back pain causes pain only in the back. Sciatica is pain that follows the path of the sciatic nerve, so the pain is felt in the back, buttock, back of the thigh, and the calf. Pain that moves from one area to the other is called radiating pain. Sciatica usually affects only one nerve on one side of the body.
Sciatic pain can be described as mild, severe, aching, or burning. It may feel like a sudden shock of pain and it may be triggered by coughing, sneezing, straining, lifting, or twisting. Other common symptoms of sciatica may include weakness, numbness, or tingling (“pins and needles”).
Sleeping With Sciatica
Symptoms of sciatica may be worse at night and may wake you up or keep you from falling asleep. The exact cause and severity of sciatica is different for different people, so there is no single solution to sleeping with sciatica. There is no recommendation for a specific type of mattress or pillow.
According to Cleveland Clinic, the key to sleeping with sciatica is to find the most comfortable sleeping position for you. If you usually sleep on your back, it could be the best position. Some people have less pain when the spine is straight. If that works for you, place a small pillow under your head and another under your knees.
If you are used to sleeping on your side, that could also be the best position, since some people have less pain when the spine is bent slightly forward. If this position works for you, place a pillow under your head, behind your back, and between your knees. Sleep on the side opposite your sciatic pain. The good news is that sciatica usually goes away on its own without treatment, so you should only have to make it through a few nights.
Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment for Sciatica
You may be at higher risk for sciatica if you are overweight and inactive. The most common age for sciatica is 30 through 50. After a bulging disc, the most common cause of sciatica is a bony growth on a vertebra – called a spur – that presses on the nerve. People with diabetes may have diabetic nerve damage that affects the sciatic nerve. Rare causes include a spinal blood clot, abscess, or tumor. You may also be at higher risk of you have bad posture or if you have a job the requires a lot of lifting or sitting. In most cases, sciatic pain will go away in a few days. If you have sciatic pain more than one week, pain that is getting worse, or pain that is causing weakness or numbness, let your doctor know.
To find the cause and best treatment, your healthcare provider will do a physical exam and may order imaging studies of your lower spine with x-ray or MRI. Treatment may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for pain and inflammation, physical therapy, and home care. In rare cases, surgery to remove a bone spur or repair a herniated disc may be needed.
Sciatica Treatment at Home
Home care for sciatica pain may include:
- A short period of rest followed by movement
- Physical therapy exercises at home
- Hot or cold compresses
- Maintaining good posture
- Avoiding heavy lifting
It is important to know that resting your back too long does not help sciatica get better. Your back needs to be moving to get blood flowing to your lower back area and to prevent stiffness and loss of muscle tone. Even if it is a little painful at first, movement is the most important part of home care.
Sciatica is not a medical emergency, but some conditions that cause sciatica may be, if the spinal cord is being compressed and nerves are being damaged. Get help right away if you have complete loss of feeling or severe weakness, or if you lose bowel or bladder control.