Severe Sciatica: What to Do When Painkillers Don't Work

Posted on: 6 January 2016

Are you at your wits' end with over the counter painkillers? Paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin often work wonders for mild pain. However, when it comes to chronic sciatica, they rarely make a dent in the discomfort.  You've probably discussed the option of stronger painkillers with your doctor, but most GPs are hesitant to prescribe such potentially dangerous medications. Luckily, this doesn't mean you have to let sciatica ruin your life. Here are 3 options for alleviating your back and leg pain when medication just doesn't cut it.

Heat & Ice Therapy

One of the easiest and cheapest treatments for sciatica is heat and ice therapy. This involves applying either ice packs or heat packs to the painful area at 20-minute intervals. Some sufferers may find extra relief by alternating between ice and heat every 20 minutes. While hot and cold are polar opposites, they both relieve pain in their own ways. Ice therapy reduces swelling around the sciatic nerve, while heat therapy relaxes and soothes the muscles compressing the nerve. Try ice, heat, and a combination of both to find out which one works best for you. You can also combine this method with over the counter painkillers for added relief.

See a Chiropractor

Chiropractors are health care practitioners who offer manual therapy to treat bone and muscular disorders. Chiropractors are trained to use a wide variety of therapeutic adjustments to alleviate pain caused by sciatica. One such treatment is the heat and ice therapy mentioned above, but your practitioner will also be able to offer several other specialist treatments you'd be unable to perform yourself. A chiropractor will examine you to determine the cause of your pain, and treatment options vary depending on your diagnosis. Pain relief options include ultrasound therapy and spinal manipulations (also known as adjustments), which involves skilled use of pressure to re-align the spine. Research actually indicates that pain management and physical therapy can work just as well as surgery, making chiropractic treatment an ideal route to explore.

Get Surgery

Since sciatica is a symptom of a condition rather than an illness in itself, there is no one surgical procedure that's guaranteed to cure it. Depending on the cause of your pain, your doctor will usually opt for one of two surgeries. If your sciatica is caused by a herniated disc, you may be offered a microdiscectomy (a microscopic, relatively non-invasive procedure) to remove the disc. The second most common procedure is a laminotomy, where a surgeon removes part of your lamina – a bony plate that compresses your nerves. As with all surgeries, these procedures require healing time and are not guaranteed to cure your pain completely. Luckily, a study from the New England Journal of Medicine reports that there is little to no risk of your sciatica worsening if you put off surgical procedures, so there's no need to rush into the decision. In general, you should only opt for surgery if none of the above options provide adequate relief.