Most people experience back pain at least once in their lifetime, but sciatica is literally a pain in the buttocks. Sciatica is a condition where due to a slipped or herniated disc, the sciatic nerve is pinched or irritated, which results in radiating pain. The pain appears in the lower back, moves to the buttocks, down the legs towards the feet. This condition can be truly disruptive and affect one’s normal daily life.
Luckily, sciatica goes away quite quickly. Even if it doesn’t go away, it can be treated with medicine or specialized massage therapy and exercises. It seems that also heat or cold therapies work as well with sciatica pain. But, which is better? Let’s find out!
- Sciatica is usually caused by a herniated or slipped disc, which irritates and pinches the sciatic nerve.
- Sciatica affects 40% of adults at least once in their lifetime.
- Sciatica often affects older individuals, but can also affect younger people, people who lead sedentary lifestyles, work strenuous jobs, or generally experience backache.
- Sciatica can also appear in people who spend a lot of time sitting, who are obese, or who lift heavy loads daily.
- People with sciatica can expect it to diminish over time and should continue with their daily activities.
- Sciatica can be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs, pain-relieving massages, therapies, and exercise.
- People with sciatica should avoid running, bending over towards the toes, lifting weights, doing squats or lifting legs.
Heat Or Cold Therapy: Which Is Better For Sciatica Pain Relief?
Cold or ice therapy is advised to be used the moment the first sciatica symptoms start to appear. Application of cold to the lower back and the sciatic nerve area will reduce the pain and prevent it from expanding and moving to other body areas. Here’s what else cold or ice therapy can do for you;
- Cold therapy acts locally and ensures quick and direct treatment, as opposed to pain-relieving medication or exercises.
- Cold therapy numbs the pain-source area, reduces inflammation of the nerve and the skin, and decreases the blood flow.
- Ice therapy can relieve and reduce muscle spasms and muscle tightness. It cools the muscle fibers and reduced pain.
- Ice therapy can prevent the swelling of the area via inflammation reduction and fluid collection around the nerve, the spinal bones, and muscles.
- Cold therapy increases your pain tolerance and prevents the nerves to send pain singles to the brain by slowing down the speed at which the nerves work.
Cold or ice therapy can be done by applying ice pack directly onto the pain-source area or the lower back. However, it can also be done by ice-massaging the area. This is done by applying ice cubes directly onto the skin in a circular motion. This can help numb the area and reduce pain levels significantly. However, applying ice directly onto the skin can cause skin damage and result in rashes or redness. Therefore, ice massage should last for only several minutes (up to 20 minutes max), and one should take breaks between ice application (every few minutes).
Note: cold or ice therapy can be overused, and in such cases can result in skin nerve damage. It is essential to apply the ice pack for only a few minutes, and use the ice massage for a maximum of 20 minutes. Moreover, there should be a barrier between the ice pack and the skin to protect it from damage.
Hot or heat therapy seems to provide immediate relief in cases of sciatica pain. It can diminish the shooting pain from the sciatic nerve and can prevent it from moving down towards the legs and feet. Here’s what heat therapy can do for you;
- Heat therapy encourages blood vessels to dilate and supply more blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the injured area. This way, it promotes faster healing of a wound, or in this case, of the sciatic nerve.
- Heat therapy can relieve muscle spasms and muscle tension in the lower back, buttocks, or the back of the thigh that is affected by sciatic pain. It relaxes muscle fibers and relieves pain.
- Heat therapy can reduce the tightness in muscles affected by the pain. As a result, it can increase one’s mobility and range of motion of the lower back.
One study shows that heat therapy is extremely effective against sciatic pain when used with warmed needles. This is an ancient technique that is used even nowadays. The needles are warmed and then placed onto the injured or painful area. It is a form of acupuncture, and the treatment effects are visible after only three sessions. The study shows that the effectiveness or warm needle therapy is exceptional. It can help individuals manage sciatica and improve their clinical symptoms in only a few sessions.
Note: When using heat therapy, the heat source should be warm, not hot, as it can be skin-damaging. The therapy should last up to 20 minutes, otherwise, it can result in skin damage, burns, or ulcers. There should always be a barrier between the heat source and the skin as well. People with multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, and similar conditions should avoid heat therapy for sciatica.
Heating And Cooling Combination Therapy
Now, in cases of serious sciatica symptoms and pain, one can always opt for the combination therapy, where both heat and cold are used to reduce pain levels and increase mobility. As mentioned before, cold therapy eases inflammation, while heat therapy deals with muscle tension and soreness. With this combination, you’re getting the best of both worlds. The combination therapy is applied in an intertwined manner or can be used in 20-minute intervals, throughout the day. Here are some tips on how can you try the combination therapy at home;
- Try to use an ice pack firstly. Use some crushed ice and wrap it in a damp towel. Place the towel onto the lower back, or wherever the pain might be located. Leave the pack for 10 minutes; you can leave it to stay or you can move it around the area.
- Now, take a break. Let the skin come back to its natural temperature, and let the numbness of the area disappear.
- Then, you can try and heat a towel or any other fabric that you have. Some people heat their towels by placing damp towels in ziplock bags and heating them in a microwave. Other people use their oven instead of a microwave (they heat their packed, damp towel to 10 minutes).
- Now, take the warm towel, and try placing it onto the pain-source area. Make sure the towel is not too hot, and if so, leave it to cool down for a few seconds. Leave the towel on the pain-source area for 10 minutes.
- And that’s it. All you have to do now is get up, try to do some stretches, and continue with your day. You can repeat the combination therapy a few times throughout the day, or a few times throughout the week, depending on the symptoms and pain level.
So, as you can see, both heat and cold therapies can be good for relieving pain and reducing the sciatica symptoms. However, it seems that the combination of both therapies works best since it targets different aspects of the pain and the source.
Either way, before you decide to try out any of the mentioned therapy options, make sure to consult with your doctor and see whether heat and cold are suitable for your particular sciatica conditions.
You don’t want to cause more issues and more pain, so make sure to consult a professional and control the duration of each of the therapies.