Sciatic nerve pain is one of the most common “side effects” of pregnancy. It causes a pain that can originate as high as the buttock and can extend down the back of the leg into the foot.
The sciatic nerve is a large nerve that originates deep in the buttock. This means that it cannot cause any symptoms higher than its origin – it can’t cause lower back pain.
The nerve runs down the back of the thigh and then branches into the front and back of the leg below the knee. As it doesn’t cover the front of the thigh, sciatic nerve pain won’t refer to the groin or quadriceps area (front of upper leg).
What does sciatic nerve pain feel like?
The most common locations for sciatic nerve pain during pregnancy are the hamstrings (back of upper leg) and into the calf.
It’s often described as a burning pain, strong tightness or a deep ache. Tingling or numbness are possible but less common. If tingling or numbness persist, it warrants a medical assessment by your local health professional.
What triggers sciatica?
Sciatic nerve pain is common during pregnancy due to a number of factors.
Changes in bodyweight can lead to muscle overload in the lower back and buttock. These fatigued muscles can squeeze the sciatic nerve and generate symptoms further down the leg.
A change of posture occurs when the growing belly changes the centre of mass. This can cause sciatic nerve pain in the latter stages of pregnancy.
As the lower back and hip position changes, it adds tension to the sciatic nerve. This nerve stretch causes symptoms at any point along the path of the nerve. It may also cause localised muscle cramping in the leg.
How do you relieve sciatic nerve pain?
The best treatment options for pregnancy-related sciatic nerve pain are often about managing and subduing the pain, rather than “fixing” it.
Experimenting with different options is vital as everyone’s causes and biomechanics are different. Stick with one option long enough to know if it’s working, based on its expected response time.
Massage can be particularly effective for the most common cause of sciatic nerve pain, muscle fatigue. Massage should focus on the hip and lower back regions, rather than the symptomatic area. You’ll notice a positive effect after 1-2 massages if it’s an effective option for you.
Side note: you’ll need a pregnancy-specific massage therapist as you’ll be unable to lie on your stomach on a flat bed.
Trigger point and foam roller work can also be effective for muscle fatigue. Target the muscles around the hip in comfortable positions with light to moderate pressure. You’ll notice a positive effect after a few days of regular (at least once daily) trigger point or roller work.
Muscle stretching can be problematic as a treatment for muscle fatigue. Although it’s useful for hip muscle fatigue generally (ie. pre-pregnancy), the size and position of the belly often prevents effective stretching of the hip muscles.
BIG side note: hamstrings stretches should be avoided as they add tension to the sciatic nerve rather than relieving it. If you absolutely must stretch your hamstrings, ensure that your toe is pointed throughout.
Pregnancy belts are supportive braces that wrap under and support the belly. These are different to SIJ belts, which are usually narrower and don’t support the belly.
These belts can relieve the muscle loading in the area and can improve posture. These work best when the cause is a combination of muscle fatigue and nerve tension due to posture. You’ll notice a benefit within 1-2 days of consistent daily use .
Heat packs can assist in the relief of muscle fatigue as well. It’s typically ineffective as an isolated treatment but is a helpful adjunct to other treatment approaches.
It’s worth mentioning that anti inflammatory medication such as Voltaren, Nurofen and Advil are not to be used during pregnancy without explicit clearance from your doctor.