Sleep and sciatica do not go together. Who can sleep well when their back or legs are throbbing or tingling? (No one.)
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But there is hope: yes, you can get to the bottom of that sciatic pain and stop feeling like a zombie. Physiotherapist Cara Sieberth, PT, tells us what you can do to relieve sciatica and finally close your eyes.
What is sciatica?
Sciatica refers to nerve pain that occurs when your sciatic nerve becomes compressed, irritated, or injured. The sciatic nerve starts in your pelvis, runs through your buttocks and down your leg to your knee. At the knee, it connects to other nerves that run along the calf and through the foot.
Sciatica is not always back pain. Lower back pain is limited to pain in one area of your back. But if you have sciatica you may notice:
- Sharp, burning, or stabbing pain that travels from the lower back to the foot.
- Muscle weakness in one or both legs or feet.
- Numbness in one or both legs.
- A tingling sensation in the leg, foot, or toe.
The localization of sciatic pain can vary depending on which area of the nerve is affected. “You could feel pain or tingling in the front, back or side of the leg,” says Sieberth. “The pain can be constant or disturb you when you sit or lie in certain positions.”
Step One: Find Out Why You Have Sciatica Pain
Getting relief from sciatica requires detective work. First, try to find out the cause. Then you can take steps to fix it. This may require a visit to your doctor and a few sessions with a physical therapist.
Causes of sciatica are:
- Bulging or slipped window.
- Compressed or irritated nerve.
- Tense back or hip muscles.
- Vertebrae (bones in your spine) that are not aligned.
- Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spine).
- Injury to the sciatic nerve from a fall or accident.
- Tumor or growth near the sciatic nerve (in rare cases).
“The cause of your sciatica influences which positions or activities disturb you,” says Sieberth. “This will also determine which sleeping positions work for you. For example, someone with a bulging disc may find it pleasant to sleep on the back, while someone with a stenosis prefers to sleep on the side. “
Experiment with sleeping positions
There is no such thing as a perfect sleeping position, mattress, or pillow that will always work for sciatic pain. But that doesn’t mean you have to suffer night after night. With the help of a physical therapist, you can find out which sleeping position is best for you.
Start with a good spine alignment
First, check whether it is comfortable for you to sleep with your back straight. “Many people find it helpful to bring their spine into a neutral position,” says Sieberth.
“When you lie down, make sure your head, shoulders, and hips are in a straight line,” she adds. “Put a small pillow under your neck and head, but not under your shoulders. Sometimes it is necessary to put a pillow under your knees so that the back does not arch too much. Once in this position, think about what hurts or what feels good. Then you can adjust your sleeping position from there. “
Try side sleep
Some people find sleeping on your side to be comfortable. It can take some pressure off your sciatic nerve, especially if you sleep on the opposite side where it hurts.
“Putting a pillow between your knees can make sleeping on your side more comfortable,” says Sieberth. “It aligns your hips and relieves the pelvis. Another option is to put a pillow behind your back for support. This also prevents you from rolling onto your back. “
Curve it forward
If spinal stenosis is causing your sciatica, bending forward slightly can provide some relief. A bent forward position helps to open up the tight spots in the spine.
You can mimic this at night and get a good night’s sleep by:
- Use a large wedge-shaped pillow under your head and upper back.
- Sleep in a deck chair or reclining bed with your head raised.
- Sleep in the fetal position (on your side with your knees drawn up).
If the arching of the back feels good, try prone sleep
Belly sleep is not for everyone. It forces you to turn your head to one side and arch your back. For some, however, it works. If you feel relief from arching your back, sleeping your stomach may help.
“If sleeping on your stomach doesn’t cause back or neck pain, you can usually continue doing that,” says Sieberth. “For some people, back arching actually provides relief from sciatica. Stay in this sleeping position if it feels good. “
Do i need a new mattress or pillow for sciatica?
Because there are so many variations of sciatic pain, there is no one mattress that is right for everyone. Some people find relief from an extra firm mattress or even sleeping on the floor. Others can’t get a wink unless they have a soft, comfortable pillow top mattress.
“With sciatica, you don’t have to get a new mattress right away,” says Sieberth. “Instead, use the mattress you need to find a comfortable position. Use your pillows or even a mattress pad to make some small changes first. As soon as you have found out what will give you some relief, you can decide whether a firmer or softer mattress is suitable for you. “
Sciatic pain not tolerated
Whatever is causing your sciatica, don’t assume you’ll have to live with it. If it affects your sleep (and quality of life), talk to your doctor about solutions, including a referral for physical therapy.
“Even a few sessions with a physiotherapist can be helpful for many people,” says Sieberth. “Your therapist can help you figure out which sleeping positions and activities are best for you. Sciatica is such an individual disease that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. “
With the right medical treatment, you can relieve sciatic pain – and head back to dreamland.