Sciatica: Top Ten Natural Ways to Ease the Pain
This past week I've been in training: an experiential intensive on Sciatic nerve pinching, otherwise known as Sciatica.
It all started on a day that consisted of seven hours of continuous driving. Three days later, another six hours of driving. But truth be told, it started before that. It's a spot that, muscularly, has given me a history of irritations. As a former dancer, my piriformis muscle has seen better days. Problem is, I'm an overly busy (stubborn?) mother of two with more important things to worry about than a nagging pain in my butt. Until I came home from my hours of driving, that is, when the pain skyrocketed to new and unknown heights. Tears shed down my face without permission, and I relegated myself to the yoga mat with slim hopes of stretch and release. I got through one night. The next night was spent pacing in the dark, wincing with agony, trying desperately to find some position I could lie in to sleep, even if it meant the hard floor. My search was fruitless. The next seven days I spent in bed, barely able to move, waited on by my family, and digging deep for the healing gifts. Chances are if you're reading this you aren't so much interested in the details of the week, but are scrolling down to find the remedies you might find some relief in for yourself. This is in no way meant to replace professional help - please see someone who you trust. I'm simply sharing the natural remedies that are assisting me.
Please ice. Two large ice packs, placed one on the buttocks area and one across the front hip area. Sports medicine recommends icing for 20 minutes, followed by heat, every two hours.
Heat applied after icing in the form of a heating pad or (if you can get there) a very hot bath for 20 minutes. This alternating of temperatures increases circulation and opens energy channels in the body which greatly assist the healing process. If you have someone in the house who can simmer you up a pot of bath herbs, by all means! Herbs to use would include Alder, Willow, Yarrow, Rue, Birch, Lemon Balm, Chamomile, and any other of your favorite anti-inflammatory plant. 1-2 cups of Epsom salts added to your hot bath will also help. Feel free to stir in a few drops of essential oils (listed later in this article)
Anti-inflammatory herbs and herbs specific to the nerves can help a great deal. You will need to determine your dose based on your sensitivity to herbal tinctures, what medications you might be on and whether it is safe for you to combine them, and your body weight as a general guide. Personally, I need a higher dose of herbal tinctures when experiencing an acute physical ailment. Doses that would never be listed on a bottle. You may be more sensitive and require much less. Any of these herbs can also be applied topically.
Tinctures/Extract/Elixir form Herbals: Willow - Salix alba, allied spp.
-This classic anti-inflammatory pain reliever doesn't taste so good (but who cares when something hurts, really) and can be a wonderful ally.
Black Birch - Betula lenta
This acts similar to willow but is delicious and can settle the stomach as well.
Wild Lettuce - Lactuca virosa, allied spp.
This extract varies for folks. For me it is helpful in settling pain. For some, it is very sedative and can induce sleep. This is generally a smaller dose herbal.
Skullcap - Scutellaria lateriflora, allied spp.
This classic herb deserves note in anything mentioning nerves. It's a gentle, effective herb which feels like an internal calm. It's natural habitat is along riverbanks, nestled into sweet spots of tranquil shade and water. I love skullcap when my physical body is acting up in response to emotional stress, anxiety or overwhelm. Those who suffer from insomnia can be greatly helped by Skullcap.
St. Johnswort - Hypericum perforatum
St. Johnswort is specific to nerve restoration and has remarkable pain relieving qualities. it is also available in homeopathic preparations. Use internally and externally in generous and frequent amounts.
Mullein Root - Verbascum thapsus
Lucky for me I had actually made some a few years ago! The following uses I learned about from my herbal friends Darcey Blue, Kiva Rose, and Jim McDonald. It can be used specifically for sciatica, as well as for structural maladies like when your "back is out" or something feels "tweaked" and is causing pain or spasm. I have been using this in 5 drop doses, about 3x day.
Rue - Ruta graveolens
Rue is listed in homeopathy as a specific remedy for sciatica. Although it is general understanding that homeopathic remedies and herbal preparations do not behave the same way when taken, I personally feel deeply connected to the preparations I have made and prefer to take them instead, simply adjusting the dose (usually lower) as needed. My Rue tincture is made from a plant I acquired some years ago at the Women's Herbal Conference and have tended since. If you are good at muscle testing or with a pendulum, you might find your correct dose that way. I am taking 3 drops 2x day.
It HELPS, I promise. Make an appointment and go. Have someone drive you and carry you if necessary. Especially if your acupuncturist also uses Moxa and herbal remedies.
If you're in a situation similar to mine, stretching will be out of the question. Massage can offer some immediate comfort as well as assist the muscles out of spasm. Deep tissue massage or localized deep pressure massage has proved most effective for me. A friend or partner with a steady elbow or strong thumbs are the best. It's likely you will know exactly where you want the pressure. Once a day after the hot bath is ideal, as more than that will perpetuate the superficial bruising that is likely. Massage and acupuncture will also assist in restoring the numbness or "lame" feeling you likely have in your toes and/or leg. If you have another form of massage that is your favorite, by all means try it! What I'm finding is that I must take the "all of the above" mode of healing in order to address this. No one remedy is enough on its own.
6. OILS & LINIMENTS
Frequent applications of nerve healing, anti-inflammatory, and muscle relaxing herbal infused oils provide additional help. I started out the week by using my pain killer salve. It provided some help, but upon the advice of the Acupuncturist, I switched to using straight St. Johnswort infused oil, to which I added a little bit of Roman Chamomile essential oil. The difference seems to be that the pain killer salve directs itself primarily to muscle tissue and is more warming in nature, while the concentrated St. Johnswort oil directs itself primarily to the nerves and is more cooling in nature.
Herbal infused oils are wondrous preparations that can be made at home by steeping herbs in a carrier oil for 4-6 weeks, and easy to acquire from home herbalists online. Or perhaps you are lucky and have a nearby apothecary. A few herbal infused oils in addition to St. Johnswort that are helpful are: Chamomile, Birch, Mint, Brahmi (Gotu Kola), Lavender, Clary Sage, Goldenrod, and Yarrow. Essential oils as most of you know are different than infused oils. They are the pure volatile oil of the plant obtained (most often) through a distillation process. They are *highly* concentrated and require attention and care when utilizing. The safety and quantity of application varies widely from plant to plant.
Essential oils are meant for external use, and can be diluted appropriately by adding a few drops to your chosen herbal infused oil. Chamomile e.o. (in this case I'm using Roman Chamomile, not the German blue) is highly anti-inflammatory and incredibly soothing to the whole body and spirit. Clary Sage e.o. is known for it's pain relieving ability and is often used in the case of severe injury, muscle spasms, and debilitating PMS.
Lavender e.o. Many people find Lavender to bring them "home". It's comforting, healing, and widely used to help restore homeostasis and heal on'es spirit.
Peppermint e.o. Cooling peppermint can aid in bringing swelling down and will increase circulation without increasing heat. Peppermint is also good at breaking up stagnant areas of the body, creating movement and energy flow in stuck spots.
Liniments (herbal extracts in alcohol, vinegar, or glycerin meant for topical use) can also be used. I would recommend the same set of herbs as above, however here we can add Arnica - the quintessential bringer of circulation, famed for it's ability to speed the healing of bruises, sprains, contusions where no skin is broken, and various injuries to muscle and bone. Arnica liniment can be applied generously, as well as bathed in if you have the bulk herb, and is also a valuable homeopathic remedy.
Extra sleep is needed to restore the balance of the body in all ways. The muscles have a chance to relax, the nerves have chance to rebuild, the temperatures in the body have an opportunity to balance and perform their optimal roles. Dark rooms with no artificial light provide the body with the purest of sleep.
8. HYDRATION & LUBRICATION
My husband banned me from coffee for a good 5 days. Although it wasn't too bad, for I needed to replenish the waters and internal lubrication of my body, so I complied. WATER is awesome, INFUSIONS even better. In the case of sciatica, our goal is to hydrate, reduce inflammation, and nourish the nerves.
Here are some delicious nourishing herbs that are specific to these purposes:
Linden flower/leaf - Tilia spp - Yum! This slippery flowery goodness is a gourmet treat for the nerves. About any plant in the Malvaceae family will offer the same benefits; marshmallow, hibiscus, okra, rose of sharon.
Milky Oat tops - Avena sativa - Oats, especially the milky oat tops, are exceptional at restoring nerves.
Lemon Balm - Melissa officinalis - A strongly aromatic herb, you may want to halve the quantity for an herbal infusion, or simply enjoy frequent cups of tisane (aromatic tea steeped only for a few minutes, like a tea bag). Lemon balm settles anxiety and is wonderfully balancing to the nervous system.
Licorice root - Glycyrrhiza glabra - is sweet and settling. It helps restore the integrity of mucous membranes in the intestines, and can help alleviate pain and swelling. It is nutritive and only a small amount is needed in an infusion; about 1 tablespoon to a quart. OILS are integral to nerves. A fat deprived body is a body whose nerves are starving. Foods that contain high quality fats and are nutrient dense should be included daily, such as salmon, sardines, grass fed butter, organic bacon fat, coconut oil, avocados, whole eggs, grass fed organic cheeses, olives, and grass fed organic organ meats once a week. Bone broth from grass fed animal bones and miso are also highly effective components of a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet. For further guidance on real foods, see the Weston A Price foundation.
Deep belly breathing brings oxygen to every cell in the body, and exports what is no longer needed. Breathing deeply is a simple and powerful tool, allowing you to initiate healing without moving, without help, and without costing you a penny. Using your minds-eye, you can also direct you breath into afflicted areas for localized healing.
Beyond the practical, lies the secret you. Checking in with your thoughts and present internalized stressors can reveal areas of panic, fear, or tension which may need to be mentally or emotionally freed. Maybe this is a little esoteric, but who cares when you're flat on your back in agony! There's no side effects here. Release can be assisted by breathing, chanting or mantra, affirmations, self-dialogue, self-love practices, loud moaning, or journaling. Louise Hay on Sciatica: "Probable Cause: Being hypocrytical. Fear of money and of future. New thought pattern: I move into my greater good. My good is everywhere, and I am secure and safe."
And lastly......... a note on OTC's (Aleve, Advil, Tylenol, etc.). This is up to you. Use prudently, care for yourself well, and keep a dialogue going with your health care professional. Some folks react differently to each kind, and require different quantities. I can't give any advice on this (I'm a plant person!) but I'll say that if the pain compares to giving birth (as mine did) - do what you need to do. I can count on one hand the times I've needed to take an OTC anti-inflammatory, and unfortunately this past week is one of those. In fact, I may never know if it even made a difference, but I'm happier to keep the focus with my plant allies and absorb the healing wisdom my body is offering my during this journey. Today is day 8. I've been measuring my pain level from the start (which I named a 10), and my steady pace towards healing has shown about one number lower per day, with little dips up and down. I'm hovering between a 4 and 3 today, with little signs of a 2 and rare moments of 5. Walking is difficult; my leg feels lame and I don't have 100% muscle control (similar to how the experience of walking when your leg is asleep feels). Pain is aggravated when sitting in a chair, and better when applying any of the above therapies. I've kept my spirits up for the most part which I have to believe helps. In a couple days, I might be able to entertain the idea of stretching the muscles involved, and as a former dancer I have a plethora of stretches to choose from. You can use yoga resources for poses that help the hips, sacrum, and buttocks release. Yet most healing of all to my spirit, to no surprise, is hobbling my wobbly self out into the sunshine to feel the grass on my toes, bury my face in my monarda flowers, and suck in the gift of sun rays.