Sciatica is literally a pain in the butt. And in the leg. And sometimes in the foot. If you’ve ever suffered from sciatic pain, you are no stranger to the deep nagging pain that radiates sometimes from your lower back, through your butt, and down the back or side of your leg. It makes your foot numb and sometimes it can take your leg right out from under you. No matter how you slice it, sciatica is a drag!
What most people don’t know about sciatica, is that it’s not a diagnosis, but a symptom–a way of describing pain that runs along the trajectory of your sciatic nerve. There are three major causes of sciatic pain:
-A disc injury of some kind. Your discs are fibrocartilaginous joints between each vertebra in your spine. They act as a shock absorber, hold your spine together, and allow for a little bit of movement. Discs can get injured, bulge, rupture, and just degenerate over time. The resulting displacement and inflammation, especially to disc in your lower back, can press on your sciatic nerve, causing pain not only in your back, but along the entire pathway of the nerve.
-Spinal stenosis. This is the narrowing of the channels through which your spinal cord or spinal nerves travel. This narrowing causes compression on one or more nerves, including your sciatic nerve, causing pain, numbness, and weakness. The most common cause of stenosis is degeneration due to the aging process.
-Piriformis syndrome. Your piriformis muscle runs deep in your butt from your sacrum (at the base of your spine) to the greater trochanter of your femur (your hip, at the side and top of your leg). When your piriformis muscle goes into spasm, gets tight, or is just cranky in general, it can press your sciatic nerve against the pelvic bone causing classic sciatic pain. Because your piriformis muscle is a core stabilizer, the more you walk, the worse your symptoms get.
In Chinese medicine, sciatic pain is considered a blockage in your Gallbladder meridian, an energetic pathway that runs along the side of your entire body, including your leg and into your foot. A typical treatment plan would include acupuncture, heat, and bodywork to relieve pain and increase circulation along the trajectory of the pathway.
That said, not all sciatic pain is created equal, in that some cases are much easier to treat than others. I have found acupuncture for piriformis syndrome to be effective, as it involves getting the muscle to calm down to relieve the pressure on the sciatic nerve. If your sciatic pain is caused by a disc problem, reducing the inflammation in the area of the disc is the goal of acupuncture, which can also be effective. Spinal stenosis can be a little trickier to treat, because the source of your pain in structural in nature. In cases of spinal stenosis, the goal of treatment is pain relief.
I personally have suffered from sciatic pain, but luckily only once. It was after a kayaking trip which left me unable to walk and in a great deal of pain. Apparently my piriformis muscle had seized up from sitting in a cold kayak for the better part of a week. And while that may not sound like good news, it actually was fairly easy to treat. With some acupuncture, heat, and a little bit of physical therapy, the muscle relaxed, and in a week or two I was back to walking like a champ.