Sciatica and Massage

Massage. Photo by Micagoto via flickr licensed under creative commons.

Massage. Photo by Micagoto via flickr licensed under creative commons.

Sciatica occurs when there is irritation or injury to the sciatic nerve.

The sciatic nerve is the longest one in our bodies and runs from the lower back, down the back parts of our legs, right to our feet.

This nerve is responsible for stimulus responses from the posterior leg muscles, the foot, and for the entire skin covering the leg.

Trouble can arise along any part of the nerve and the location will often influence the severity of the condition. Sensations caused by sciatica can range from a tingling feeling, to weakness in the limb, to outright agony. In most cases, sciatica will occur on only one side of the body.

Sciatica Causes

Generally, sciatica occurs because there is damage to the lower spine, which directly impacts the sciatic nerve by squeezing it. There can be a number of reasons for this damage.

  • Osteoarthritis of the spine can cause the disks to collapse somewhat, putting pressure on the sciatic nerve.
  • Bone spurs are often the result of osteoarthritis, and these can also press against the sciatic nerve. Probably better called bone ‘lumps’, spurs are excess bone that is deposited along the edges of the bone, in this case, the vertebrae. These spurs, which can be surprisingly large, can easily exert force on the sciatic nerve and cause sciatica.
  • Spinal stenosis (the spinal canal narrows) compresses the nerve. Aging is the most likely cause of this narrowing, but it can also be a congenital condition. As the passage in the lumbar spine becomes more and more narrow, it will press upon the sciatic nerve.
  • Compression fractures, which can occur from sports or vehicular accidents, likewise will compress the sciatic nerve. The damaged disk can collapse onto the nerve, resulting in pain.
  • Herniated disks are one of the leading causes of sciatica. Our vertebrae are separated from one another by cushioning material called disks, and when a disk herniates the cushioning material on the interior of the disk is pushed out through the somewhat leathery covering. The sciatic nerve can be affected in 2 ways: the bulging disk will cause compression of the nerve, or the leaked cushioning material will actually irritate the nerve directly.

Sciatic pain will often alleviate itself within 2 months, but it can continue for longer than this. Sitting for long periods of time will often worsen the condition, as can coughing or sneezing. Although most cases of sciatica resolve themselves fairly quickly, there are times when surgery will be required, usually when the problem is so bad that it is interfering with normal elimination, or had resulted in nearly complete disability.

Putting Massage Therapy to Work

When sciatic pain or other symptoms make themselves known, after a visit to your doctor, massage therapy may well be the best path to recovery. Your massage therapist will assess your individual situation and use the appropriate techniques to bring relief to the affected areas. Massage will include not only the middle and lower back, but the buttocks, back of the thighs, and calf muscles. Not only will the therapy be designed to deal directly with the sciatica, but the increase in blood circulation provides an increase of oxygen to help heal the damaged nerve tissue. The release of endorphins (a beneficial side effect of any massage) can help to reduce pain. Muscles that have tightened in response to discomfort will become looser and more flexible.

Studies have been done regarding sciatica with several control groups. One group received no treatment whatsoever for their sciatica, another group relied on a chiropractor, others took pain relief medication, and one group visited a massage therapist once a week. By the end of 2 ½ months, it was revealed that not only was the group that received massages experiencing less pain and were more able to participate in normal activities, but one third of them had no pain at all. The other groups showed little, or no, improvement.