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Guide to Massage for Sciatica Pain

By Lubna Sheikh on 22nd November 2019

sciatica pain massage

With an assortment of daily work responsibilities requiring sitting, shifting, lifting and squatting in uncomfortable positions, back pain is a familiar symptom to many people.

However, when typical back pain spreads and shoots through the bottom half of your body, you may actually be experiencing nerve damage and sciatica.

While patients may not always realize the nerve issues their back and leg pain indicates, sciatica is actually a very common condition.

According to Harvard Health, 40 per cent of people will experience sciatica at some point in their life [1].

However, despite being both common and entirely treatable, mismanagement of sciatica symptoms can make daily life difficult. Proper knowledge on the condition is necessary to treat it best.

Keep reading to learn more about what sciatica is and how it is diagnosed, what causes nerve damage, therapies to combat sciatica pain and how massage offers an effective treatment for patients.

Sciatica diagnosis

Sciatica is a common condition referring to pain along the sciatic nerve, which flows through the lower back, buttocks, hips, legs and feet.

As the longest nerve in the body, the sciatic nerve is responsible for controlling leg function like the ability to stand and walk.

When the sciatic nerve is irritated, sciatica may cause mild symptoms like numbness, weakness and tingling sensations in the lower limbs.

Sciatica discomfort often targets one side of the body and becomes more obvious when sitting and standing up or while coughing and sneezing. Back pain is often secondary to sciatica pain experienced in the lower limbs and alone does not indicate sciatica.

In more serious cases, sciatica symptoms may increase from uncomfortable to painful, with burning or stabbing sensations restricting daily activities.

Rarely, patients experience symptoms requiring immediate medical attention like a loss of feeling in their lower limbs or a lack of bowel control. However, sciatica symptoms should also be evaluated following injuries or accidents.

Doctors diagnose sciatica through a range of tests that monitor leg function, nerve responses and spinal imaging.

This includes assessing a patient’s medical history and symptoms, running muscle and reflex tests, nerve impulse tests, X-rays, MRIS and CT scans depending on symptom severity.

What causes sciatica to flare up?

Many factors cause spinal issues that lead to sciatica pain. Here are some of the most common causes of sciatica:

1. Injury

A sudden accident or blunt trauma to the back or legs can cause nerve damage and sciatica pain. In addition, improperly lifting a heavy object or falling can cause spinal strain and lead to herniated discs, a precursor for sciatica.

2. Age

Along with injury, age increases your chances of developing sciatica as your body wears down and becomes weaker.

Unlike injury which often occurs after strenuous activity, age can cause nerve issues from simple movements like standing and sitting.

Also with age comes a narrowing of the bony cavity holding the spine called lumbar spinal stenosis. When this occurs, the sciatic nerve compresses and causes pain.

3. Weight

Weight also commonly causes sciatica because added fat puts pressure on the spinal column discs.

Lifestyle changes including an improved diet and exercise plan can help reduce sciatica symptoms associated with being overweight.

Pregnancy may also temporary cause sciatica symptoms as a woman’s body undergoes shifts and weight gain.

4. Health

Finally, certain diseases and illnesses can cause sciatica symptoms.

Degenerative Disc Disease breaks down discs in the back which leads to sciatica pain while Spondylolisthesis causes vertebrae to painfully shift in front of or behind bones.

5. Lifestyle

Certain lifestyle habits can also cause sciatica flare-ups. Everything from wearing high heel shoes to lifting too much at work or in the gym can cause sciatica symptoms.

Sleeping arrangements may also cause sciatica issues with uncomfortable beds and couches leading to related back pain.

Acute sciatica v chronic sciatica

Typically, mild sciatica will go away on its own in four to six weeks.

For acute sciatica, medical attention is not required and patients can speed up their healing process with over-the-counter pain medications, stretching exercises and adequate rest.

If symptoms last longer than a month, chronic sciatica may be the cause and a trip to the doctor is best to sort out persistent issues. With chronic sciatica, more involved physiotherapy, possible surgery and regular massage therapy offers stronger solutions.

Therapy for sciatica

Therapies for sciatica depend on how severe and persistent symptoms are. Some methods focus on treating present painful symptoms, while others target the source of the issue to stop sciatica from returning.

1. Medications

First, pain relievers like Ibuprofen can help alleviate aches and swelling, to make therapy and daily activities more manageable while treating sciatica. Doctors may also diagnose stronger medications during treatment if chronic symptoms persist.

2. Physiotherapy for sciatica

Physiotherapy refers to physical exercises, stretches and workouts designed to strengthen weak muscles and tissues.

When it comes to sciatica, it is important to seek out physiotherapy options that focus on improving range of motion and conditioning muscles through aerobic movements.

When it comes to stretches, straddles are useful at improving hip flexor motion. On the other hand, squats improve muscle tone in the lower body, elevate core strength and keep the body properly aligned.

Stretches that extend the arms and legs are especially important for sciatica patients who experience stiffness while sitting.

Low-impact activities are also great for patients struggling with sciatica because they avoid additional strain while still strengthening the body.

These include activities like walking, swimming or yoga. These activities should be completed after stretching when the body is feeling most limber.

3. Sciatica surgery

Sciatica surgery is typically not considered for patients experiencing acute symptoms. Sciatica surgeries aim to help patients relieve chronic leg pain symptoms but are typically not effective for the associated back pain.

In addition, when sciatica is accompanied by loss of feeling in the limbs or improper bowel control, surgery is often the option to battle-related issues like tumours, infection or Cauda Equina Syndrome, where suppressed nerves lead to loss of function.

4. Sciatica massage

Finally, massage therapy offers pain relief and movement improvement to both patients suffering from acute and chronic sciatica.

Massage is the ideal option for sciatica relief because it reduces the risks associated with other treatment options like dependence, strain and surgery complications.

Different types of massage exist to target specific pain problems including deep tissue massage, Swedish massage, hot stone massage, acupuncture, chiropractic massage, trigger point massage and Myofascial release massage.

Can massage improve nerve pain?

Since sciatica is a result of nerve pain, the question then becomes can massage improve nerve pain? Massage is especially kind to damaged nerves because its techniques relax the nervous system.

During a massage, your blood pressure reduces, you start to breathe slower and your heart rate calms. All of these physical responses allow stress and pain to subside.

The tension release is also great at releasing endorphins, the body’s natural “feel good” chemicals.

Overall, loosening tight muscles with massage therapy also allows a quicker healing process.

By working through the tight zones, massage therapists improve your body’s function by better-circulating oxygen, nutrients and blood to the affected areas and reducing stress.

Massage types to treat sciatica

From deep tissue massages that penetrate the source of pain to trigger point massages that focus on the network of pain, the following types of massage are useful in treating sciatica.

1. Deep tissue massage

When sciatica occurs after an injury, deep tissue massages are useful because they target the inner muscles and connective tissues.

Therapists use slow, deep strokes to penetrate scar tissue and properly manage painful spots.

A 2014 study published in The Scientific World Journal tested the effectiveness of pain reliever medications against deep tissue massage treatments for lower back pain and found that deep tissue massages were equally effective in reducing lower back pain.

Researchers concluded deep tissue massages would be a reliable replacement for medical intervention in treating back pain [2].

2. Swedish massage

While therapists stay on the surface during a Swedish massage more than a deep tissue massage, the common relaxation technique is equally effective in managing sciatic nerve pain.

Swedish massages are typically the first massage therapists learn and are widely offered.

A 2011 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found that Swedish massages or relaxation massages were just as effective as deep tissue massages or structural massages in treating back pain [3].

3. Hot stone massage

Hot stone massages use a combination of Swedish massage techniques with heated stones to relieve muscle tension and pain.

When heated, the stones increase blood flow and improve range of motion. Some therapists will also cool the stones after a heated massage and place them on the spine to reduce inflammation.

4. Acupuncture

Massage treatments that stray from traditional by-hand treatments can be equally effective in treating pain.

Acupuncture strategically uses very thin needles to pinpoint specific pain points and reduce inflammation.

While the massage itself may produce a tingling sensation, the needles typically do not cause pain.

A 2015 Chinese study monitored acupuncture’s effectiveness on sciatica pain and found that acupuncture as a sole treatment was effective 81.6 per cent of the time.

When mixed with herbal treatments, the acupuncture massage combination was effective 95 per cent of the time [4].

5. Chiropractic massage

Like acupuncture, chiropractic massages stray from traditional rubbing motions and focus on cracking sore backs instead.

While less gentle than a traditional massage, a chiropractic massage is especially useful against sciatica symptoms because it focuses on nerve irritation.

By fixing the body and bone alignment issues, a chiropractic massage makes nerve signals travel more efficiently.

Releasing the muscle and joint tension through chiropractic massages also improves the effectiveness of other treatments and speeds up the healing process.

6. Trigger point massage

Trigger point therapy recognizes that certain points on the body trigger pain in other areas when experiencing irritation.

For example, neck pain often causes pain throughout the head. Likewise, sciatica causes back pain that triggers pain in the buttocks, hips, legs and feet.

During a trigger point massage, a patient uses deep breathing methods to relax as the therapist applies pressure to the specific source areas experiencing pain.

This treatment option is most effective for sciatica caused by an injury because it targets one source zone rather than spread pain.

5. Myofascial release massage

A myofascial release massage gently applies pressure to the myofascial connective tissues. It is a specific type of trigger point therapy.

After trauma or surgery, the body restricts these tissues and causes pain and mobility issues. This massage is typically completed without oils or lotions to test the tissue’s limits and find the best method of restoring elasticity.

How to massage sciatica trigger points at home

If sciatica flares up and you are unable to make it to a massage therapist, there are also self-massage for sciatica relief options you can perform from home.

For instance, using your palms and thumbs you can alternate pressure on the sore areas of your lower back or legs.

Additionally, if you have two tennis balls and a sock available you can use the tennis ball massage method, which involves laying on top of the concealed balls to keep the pressure on the painful spot.

This replicates the myofascial release massage from home.

Stretches like cat/cow also help to regain flexibility in your spine and core. Laying on your stomach, alternate between arching your torso up towards the ceiling and then retracting to hollow out your back.

Improving your range of motion should alleviate tension and pain throughout your back.

Lessons to remember for sciatica relief

While laying around may seem like your only relief from sciatica pain, immobility will only make your symptoms worse. During the healing process, it is important to stay moving and improving a little bit more each day.

A few stretches a day and regular massage practices can make all the difference in a completely natural non-invasive way.

Sciatica pain often makes easy aspects of life more difficult. However, adhering to the tips above can help you quickly ward off sciatica flare-ups and avoid nerve issues in the future, making sciatica entirely manageable.

References

[1] https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/sciatica-of-all-the-nerve

[2] https://www.hindawi.com/journals/tswj/2014/287597/

[3] https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/747008/comparison-effects-2-types-massage-usual-care-chronic-low-back

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4575738/

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