Most people know what sciatica means—low back pain that radiates downward into the left or right buttock into the leg and sometimes all the way into the foot. In some cases, the pain can be excruciating, and while it may be hard to believe, sciatica often goes away within 3 months with conservative treatment. That “conservative treatment” referred to here are non-invasive therapies that can be done in the comfort of your own home.
The 5 at-home sciatica therapies below are good options for people who recently started experiencing sciatic nerve pain or whose pain is not severe, but I urge you get your doctor’s approval before trying any of these at-home treatments. If you’ve been dealing with sciatica for a few weeks or have debilitating low back and leg pain, you should see your doctor.
It may feel unnatural to exercise when you’re in pain, but research suggests that resting too much can aggravate your back and leg symptoms. Instead, incorporate gentle exercise into your day to ease your sciatica. The key is gentle: Exercise should not be painful or strenuous. A walk around the block (yes, I know it’s not at home, but it’s close enough) is a great example of physical activity that keeps your spine strong without doing any additional damage. In addition to making your spine stronger (eg, core exercises, a stronger spine better protects against pain), exercise triggers the release of endorphins to reduce your perception of pain.
Incorporate gentle stretching into your daily routine. Stretching is an excellent way to improve your spinal flexibility and range of motion while also building core and spinal strength. Plus, most stretches are simple enough to be done while watching the news or your favorite movie.
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.
Whether you are working at your desk or relaxing at home, if you stay in the same position for too long, you might find that your sciatica pain spikes. Varying your posture every 20 minutes and using proper posture can help take pressure off your spine and reduce your sciatica symptoms.
Over-the-counter (OTC) non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may help ease sciatica symptoms when they strike. NSAIDs can be a good option because they relieve both inflammation and pain, unlike acetaminophen (Tylenol) that only reduces pain. However, NSAIDs bear health risks you should understand before using them, so make sure to discuss their safety with your doctor first. Examples of OTC NSAIDs include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), aspirin (Ecotrin), and naproxen (Aleve).
When Your Sciatica Warrants a Visit to Your Doctor
It’s important to recognize when at-home therapies aren’t easing your sciatica. If these treatments don’t help you, it may be time to see your personal doctor or spine specialist.
People avoid the doctor for a variety of reasons. Maybe you’re unsure about how to use your health insurance or you don’t have any. Or perhaps you simply don’t like visiting the doctor and prefer an “ignorance-is-bliss” approach.
Whatever the reason, some sciatica symptoms truly warrant medical attention. In rare cases, delaying medical care could lead to or cause permanent nerve damage.
If you experience any of the following, please see your doctor as soon as possible:
You have severe pain in your low back and legs
You experience nerve-related symptoms, such as weakness, numbness, tingling, or electric shock-like pain
Your pain doesn’t improve after 2 weeks
Your pain gets worse, even when using at-home therapies
You have loss of bowel and/or bladder control
Easing the extreme pain of sciatica doesn’t always require an extreme treatment approach. Relieving sciatic nerve pain at home with gentle exercise, ice and heat therapy, proper posture, and medication may go a long way to speed your recovery. But the most important thing you can do for your low back and leg pain is to take it seriously—always call your doctor if you aren’t experiencing relief.
Written by Neel Anand, MD