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Sciatica - what Is it and can Heat Therapy help?

Sciatica is characterized by low back pain which radiates into the buttocks and down one leg, usually past the knee. Occasionally, the condition can cause weakness in the affected leg. The pain may range from mild discomfort to extremely severe. It is estimated that between 40% and 50% of people suffer from sciatic pain during their lifetime, but in most cases the pain is not due to any injury or chronic medical problem.

What Causes Sciatica?

Sciatica is caused when pressure is placed on the sciatic nerve which runs through the lower spine at the L-5 vertebra. The pressure is most often due to muscle compression which may be caused by pregnancy, stress, physical inactivity, dietary deficiencies, cold or draught and osteoarthritis of the hip. In rare instances it may be caused by injury, especially from a traffic accident, herniated disc, spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis or tumours of the spine. 

Sciatica pain is not actually a diagnosis but a symptom of an underlying condition. This means that the underlying condition must be treated in order to get rid of sciatica pain. However, heat therapy or thermotherapy can help relieve the pain of sciatica until the underlying cause of the pain is determined and treated.

Diagnosing Sciatica

A doctor will conduct a physical examination including a medical history, the location and type of pain, which movements aggravate the pain and which movements alleviate the pain. Usually the doctor will palpate the spine for myofascial trigger points, test reflexes and ask patients to walk on toes and heels and perform leg raises and squats. Diagnostic tests include x-rays, MRIs and CT scans to determine if the cause of the pain is due to an injury, herniated disc or tumours.

Preventing Sciatica

Unless sciatica is caused by a medical condition, disease or injury, regular exercise and a healthy diet can prevent the symptoms from occurring. Stress is believed to contribute to sciatica and relaxation exercises can alleviate stress. Obesity may also contribute to sciatica by creating extra strain on the muscles of the back causing compression of the vertebrae. Learning proper lifting techniques can help avoid back injuries that lead to sciatic pain.

Treatments for Sciatica

It is estimated that 85% of sciatica patients can receive relief through self treatments. These include stretching exercises and treatment with heat therapy or cold packs. If muscle inflammation is present, cold packs should be applied for about 5 to 10 minutes before applying microwave heat pads or wheat bags for 8 to 10 minutes. If no inflammation is present, cold packs are unnecessary and heat therapy may be used alone.

How Does Heat Therapy Work?

The use of heat therapy for muscle pain and stiffness goes back as far as ancient Greece. Heat pads increase circulation which improves oxygen flow to the muscles. Heat therapy also relaxes muscle cramps or spasms reducing pain and it contributes to reducing stress which relieves tension in muscles reducing stiffness. It is a completely holistic therapy which is inexpensive and has no harmful side effects.

Heat therapy also helps to stimulate the sensory system, which decreases the number and frequency to pain signals to the brain. This means that you won’t experience as severe as pain as you once did. Heat therapy is an important part of treating sciatica pain, as it also helps to relax the muscles in the lower back, this relieves some of the pressure on the sciatic nerve.

One of the most effective ways to apply heat to the lower back and buttocks is with a product that form fits to the curves of these areas. A microwavable wheat bag is a good choice; the heat from this type of product can last for up to 45 minutes. Doctors estimate that the first fifteen minutes of heat therapy are the most effective.

The incidence of sciatica is about equal in men and women and it can usually be self treated with heat therapy and stretching exercises. It is more common in people over 40 and changes that occur in the aging process may be a factor in the condition. Sciatica pain can be excruciating, heat therapy with a wheat bag can relieve the pain, and also promote healing of damaged muscles, tendons, and ligaments that may be the underlying cause of compression of the sciatic nerve.