Sciatica Pain: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

seniors with sciatica pain

The sciatica nerve is the longest single nerve in the body, running from each side of the spine through the buttock, into the back of each thigh and down to the foot. The nerve plays a critical role in connecting the spinal cord to the leg and foot muscles.

Any type of pain felt along this nerve is called sciatica.

What is Sciatica Pain?

Sciatica pain refers to pain or neurological symptoms that affect the sciatica nerve. While pain is the most common symptoms, some people may also experience weakness, numbness and tingling.

Most people call this sciatica, although this is not technically a medical diagnosis. Sciatica pain is really just a symptom of an underlying medical condition.

An estimated 40% of people will experience sciatica pain in their lifetime, and the risk grows as you age.

Sciatica is rare in people under the age of 20 and is more likely to affect middle-aged adults between the ages of 40 and 50.

What Causes Sciatica?

Sciatica is usually caused by compression of a spinal nerve in the lower back. A number of back issues can cause sciatica pain, but it most commonly occurs when the L5 or S1 nerve in the lower spine becomes irritated by a herniated disc.

The nerve roots that form the sciatica nerve are extremely sensitive. The inner portion of a herniated or extruding disc contains a protein that can easily irritate or inflame the nerve.

Sciatica is also more common in:

  • Obese adults
  • People over the age of 20
  • Sedentary adults
  • Smokers
  • People with piriformis syndrome
  • People with osteoarthritis

Certain medical conditions, primarily back issues, can cause sciatica, including:

  • Isthmic spondylolisthesis
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Piriformis syndrome
  • Lumbar spinal stenosis
  • Sacroiliac joint dysfunction

Other less-common conditions that can cause sciatica include:

  • Spinal tumors
  • Pregnancy
  • Ankylosing spondylitis
  • Muscle strain
  • Scar tissue
  • Infection
  • Fracture

What are the Symptoms of Sciatica?

Sciatica pain can be debilitating, but for some, the symptoms are infrequent and irritating. Typically, the condition only affects one side of the body, where pain radiates from the lower back down through the thigh and leg.

Sciatica can cause the following symptoms:

  • Pain that radiates from the lower back or buttock down through the leg and foot.
  • Constant pain on one side of the leg or buttock (rarely in both sides).
  • Pain the toes, which makes it difficult to stand up or walk.
  • Pain that feels better when walking or laying down and worsens when standing or sitting.
  • Weakness or numbness when moving the foot or leg.
  • Numbness, weakness, or a “pins and needles” sensation along the leg.
  • Sharp or searing pain.

Symptoms may become more intense during sudden movements, such as coughing, sneezing or changing positions (e.g. standing to sitting).

Treatment Options

Sciatica sounds painful (and it is), but here’s the good news: the majority of people will feel better within a few weeks or months. Most people experience relief without surgical treatment.

For some people, the pain from a pinched nerve in the leg can be debilitating. In this case, surgery may be required.

But most people start to feel better after making lifestyle changes.

Pain Medication

Over-the-counter pain medications are often very effective at relieving sciatica pain. NSAIDs can reduce inflammation, which is usually partly to blame for the pain.

A doctor may also prescribe narcotic medications or muscle relaxants if the pain does not subside with NSAIDs. These are typically prescribed for the short-term (up to two weeks).


For acute pain, heat and ice packs can provide some relief. Heat or ice should be applied for 20 minutes at a time and repeated every two hours. Heat or ice can be used, or you can alternate between the two.

Sciatica Cushions

For those who experience pain while sitting, specially-designed sciatica cushions can help provide relief.

These cushions are designed to take pressure off of the coccyx, which can cause spinal disc compression. Alleviating pressure on the discs can provide pain relief and minimize inflammation, one of the root causes of the condition.


Acupuncture is an alternative form of treatment that is designed to improve the flow of energy (or qi) through the body. Thin, small needles are placed along certain energy points on the body, typically near the area of the pain.

The U.S. FDA has approved acupuncture as a treatment for back pain. The National Institutes of Health also recognizes acupuncture as an effective treatment for back pain.

Massage Therapy

Massage therapy can help improve sciatica pain by improving blood flow and relaxing the body. It also helps the body release endorphins, which are natural pain relievers.

Physical Therapy and Exercise

In cases where sciatica pain is ongoing, exercise and physical therapy may be recommended. Sciatica exercises focus on a few important areas:

For strength training, the focus is not only on the lower back but also on the buttock, hip and abdominal muscles. Strong core muscles can automatically provide relief, as they support the spine and keep it in proper alignment.

Stretching in and of itself can provide pain relief while improving flexibility and reducing the changes of a future flare-up. Hamstring stretches are great for alleviating sciatica pain, as this is often the area that is most painful.

Low-impact cardiovascular exercise, such as swimming, walking and pool therapy, will help improve blood flow and allow the body to release endorphins (natural pain killers).

Sciatica sufferers have a number of treatment options available to them. A doctor can help determine the most effective course of action to alleviate pain.

3 Spine Stretches and 2 Sciatica Exercises for the Elderly

back stretches

Your spine degenerates as you age. When the spine degenerates, it leads to sciatic pain. This pain radiates from the tailbone, and it’s cause by the sciatic nerve, which runs through the pelvis and down the back of the leg.

This is the body’s most vulnerable nerve.

If you’re suffering from spine pain and sciatica, you can perform stretches and exercises to alleviate your suffering.

We’re going to discuss both stretches and exercises you can perform to relieve your pain.

3 Spine Stretches You Can Perform Today

1.     Lower Back Stretch

The lower back gets tight, and when tight, the back can begin to hurt and alter your ability to maintain proper posture. This easy lower back stretch can be performed by people of all ages.

You’ll need to lay on the ground to perform this exercise, so grab a chair if you need help getting up.

Now, you’ll need to:

  • Lay flat on your back
  • Bend your knees while keeping your feet together
  • Rotate your knees to the left, and hold for 20 – 30 seconds
  • Rotate your knees to the right, and hold for 20 – 30 seconds

You need to keep your back flat on the ground when rotating from side to side.

2.     Flexion Stretch

This is an exercise that you can perform in a chair. The goal is to sit on the edge of the chair while keeping your feet flat on the floor. Once you’re sure you have yourself in a stable position, you’ll want to:

  • Bend forward slightly
  • Slide your hands down the back of your legs
  • Continue bending forward as far as is comfortable
  • Hold your stretch for 20 – 30 seconds

You can repeat this stretch as many times per day as you like. This will allow you to stretch out the back and pelvis where the pain originates.

3.     Pigeon Pose Stretch

Pigeon Pose is a stretch that is often performed in yoga, and this is a great exercise with multiple variations. You’ll want to start on the floor first before progressing to harder stretches. If you have issues balancing, this is a stretch we recommend you perform to open your hips.

Start by lying flat on your back on the floor.

Note: The bed doesn’t provide the support needed to perform this stretch properly.

You’ll now want to do the following while laying straight on your back:

  • Bring your foot upward into a right angle so that your inner ankle is facing your face
  • Grasp your hands behind the lifted leg’s knee
  • Bring your opposing knee upward so that your ankle is resting against your knee
  • Bring the knee upward towards the chest to stretch the piriformis muscle

Repeat this stretch on the opposite leg. You can also perform pigeon pose while sitting up, but for older stretchers, it’s recommended that you start in the reclining pose first.

2 Sciatica Exercises to Perform

1.     The Clamshell

The clamshell is an easy exercise to perform, and it strengthens the hips and knees while alleviating sciatic pain. Performing the clamshell is straightforward:

  • Lay on your side on the ground
  • Turn so that your belly button is facing the ground while remaining on your side
  • Bend your knees and lay them on top of each other on the floor
  • Keep the ankles together and use your hip muscles to open the legs

You’ll be lifting the top leg so that you look like an open clamshell. Lower the top leg back on the bottom leg, and reopen. Repeat for 20 repetitions before switching to the opposite side.

2.     Bird Dog

An exercise that requires a lot of strength yet helps build the buttocks muscles and back. Core control is at the heart of this exercise. You’ll want to start the bird dog on your hands and knees on the floor.

Keeping on knee on the ground, you’ll:

  • Straighten the opposing foot behind you in the air
  • Lift the arm straight in the air that matches the side where your knee is on the ground
  • Hold for 20 seconds

So, if your left knee remains on the ground, your left arm will be extended straight out in front of you in the air.

You’ll need to repeat this exercise on the alternate side, too.

Sciatica pain has many causes. If you have a disc herniation, you’ll need to be treated for the herniation for the pain to subside. A doctor will help narrow down the root cause of your sciatic pain.

A physical therapist can recommend further exercises to help alleviate pain and reduce the pressure on the sciatic nerve. A good way to take the pressure off of the nerve is to use a special seat called a coccyx cushion. This cushion has a hole or indentation to allow space for the sciatic nerve.

Staying active and performing aerobic exercises allows elderly folks to maintain their mobility while also stretching out many of the muscles that cause strain on the back and sciatic nerves. If your sciatic flares up, it’s likely caused by three main issues: disc herniation, tight hip muscles, or bone degeneration.