Read on to identify whether you could be suffering from sciatica

Illustration of a sciatic nerve, herinated disc & compressed spinal nerve.

The sciatic nerve is a large nerve that starts in the spinal cord and supplies the buttocks and legs, all the way down to the big toe. Inflammation of this nerve is called sciatica. Around 60-80 percent of people in the UK experience back pain at some point in their lives, and sciatica is a common root cause.

Any pressure on the sciatic nerve can lead to inflammation of the nerve, causing it to swell up in an already limited space. Causes of compression can include arthritis in the back and disc bulging. 

What are the symptoms of sciatica?

• Shooting or burning pain in the lower back, buttocks, thighs, knees and toes
• Unilateral leg pain radiating below the knee to the foot or toe
• Tingling in the legs
• Muscle weakness in the legs 

Can I treat sciatica myself?

These are some natural methods you can carry out which may help to relieve pain from sciatica:
• You should rest in the first few days, but prolonged bed rest isn't recommended. You should continue with your everyday activities as much as possible, and may find that getting some gentle exercise by walking around at regular intervals will help to ease the discomfort in your back
• Regular gentle stretching
• Heat. Apply heat packs or towels soaked in warm water to the site where you feel most pain. You may find that hot showers help too

Staying active and exercising regularly can help to reduce the risk of recurrence. 

How else can I treat sciatica?

If natural measures don't work, speak with your pharmacist for advice on which medicines may be best for you.

The following are most commonly used:
• Painkillers such as paracetamol, or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like ibuprofen. Paracetamol alone isn't recommended as treatment for sciatica. NSAIDs should always be taken after food, and may be unsuitable for certain groups of people – ask your pharmacist for advice if you're unsure and always read the patient information leaflet
• Your GP may choose to prescribe muscle relaxants

Check with your doctor or pharmacist for further details about which medication is suitable for you.

Your GP may give you stronger painkillers or a combination of medicines. You may also be referred for some physiotherapy sessions or for a visit with an orthopaedic surgeon. 

When should I see my GP?

Talk to your GP if you find that your pain isn't improving or is getting worse.

You should call an ambulance or go straight to A&E if:
• You start finding it hard to start urinating, if you can't urinate or you can't control your urine 
• You start losing control of your bowel movements
• Your sciatica is in both legs
• Your legs feel very weak
• Your legs feel very numb
• Your genital area or the area around your anus feels numb 

What can I do to prevent sciatica?

Once you get sciatica, you're at risk of getting it again. Here are some things you can try to help prevent another episode:
• Exercise regularly. Start gradually and increase activity as your fitness level improves
• Work at shedding any excess body weight, which can place strain on your spine, leading to further inflammation of the sciatic nerve
• Stop smoking. Smoking increases the likelihood of inflammation in the body
• Improve your posture, particularly your seated position if you work at a desk-based job. Your GP will be able to advise you about this
• Avoid long periods of time standing up or sitting down. Take short walks every 45 minutes

Our simple ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ checklist below will help you scrub up on how to sit properly.

Great posture

Try to:
• Support your lower back
• Put both feet on the floor (use a foot rest if you need to)
• Have your screen at eye level
• Keep your keyboard straight in front of you
• Keep your elbows in towards your ribs while typing (90-degree angle, please!)
• Place frequently used objects within easy reach
• Keep your computer mouse close

With a bit of practice, good posture will become second nature.

Not-so-great posture

Try not to:
• Cross your legs
• Wrap your feet around your chair legs
• Hunch over
• Lift your shoulders up
• Poke your chin up

Next steps

• Avoid complete inactivity and take gentle exercise
• Consider taking a painkiller such as ibuprofen to help ease the pain
• If your pain doesn't improve or gets worse, talk to your pharmacist or GP