Dealing with sciatica is bad enough during the day, with flare-ups making daily tasks unbearable. But at night, when your mind can focus on nothing but the dull, throbbing pain radiating deep in your lower back and legs, sciatica symptoms can turn into an absolute nightmare.
Sciatica, also known as lumbar radiculopathy, refers to the irritation, inflammation or pinching of the sciatic nerve at the root. This long, thick nerve is the largest in the human body, originating in the lower back region and alongside the hip and down the lower leg. Sciatica is often the result of a herniated or slipped disc, which can compress the nerve root and cause pain.
Understanding sciatica and how it affects your sleep is crucial for living a happier, pain-free life. In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about this excruciating nerve pain, including the causes and treatments. We’ll also share a few tips for getting a sound night’s sleep with sciatica — from finding the right sleeping position to lowering stress-induced pain with a Gravity weighted blanket.Get Your Gravity Weighted Blanket
What Is Sciatica?
Sciatica occurs when the roots of the sciatic nerve, located in the lumbar spine, become compressed or inflamed, causing a numbing, tingling or burning sensation along the nerve pathway. This pathway begins at the base of the spine and travels through the top of the buttocks and down the back of the thighs and lower legs. If symptoms last for eight weeks or less, it’s known as acute sciatica. Sciatic nerve pain that lasts longer than eight weeks is considered chronic.
Sciatica is extremely common, with about 40 percent of people experiencing it sometime during their lifetime. In about 90 percent of sciatica cases, a herniated disc is to blame.
What Does Sciatica Pain Feel Like?
Symptoms of sciatica vary from person to person, but most people describe it as shooting pain or numbness in the leg that worsens when the person is standing or walking. For some people, the pain manifests as a dull, throbbing ache in the lower back or buttocks. The pain may be constant or intermittent and vary in intensity.
Risk factors for sciatica include having an injury to your lower back, increasing age, being overweight, being inactive, having weak core muscle strength, poor posture and having an active, physical job. Generally, men are more likely to experience sciatica pain than women.
Sciatica Treatment Options
With time and adequate rest, sciatica pain tends to resolve on its own. However, it may come back if the individual doesn't take steps to fix the underlying problem.
Severe and/or chronic cases of sciatica may require additional treatments. These may include:
- Physical therapy
- Hot/cold packs
- Prescription muscle relaxants
- Epidural steroid injections
- Surgical options, including discectomy and laminectomy
You should see a doctor for your sciatica — even if the pain is mild. Minor sciatic nerve pain can progress to permanent nerve damage, so the earlier you get it checked out, the better!
Why Is Sciatica Pain Worse at Night?
One of the more annoying things about sciatica pain is that it tends to increase in intensity right as you're about to fall asleep. But why is that?
Sciatica pain may fluctuate at night for several reasons, say experts. For one thing, you’re probably much less distracted at night, giving your brain more bandwidth to focus on the body’s various aches and pains.
Then again, the heightened pain you experience at night could be a natural consequence of your body’s circadian timing system. According to a recent study from researchers at the Neuroscience Research Centre in France, our sensitivity to pain is highest at night and lowest in the afternoon, suggesting that pain has a rhythmic nature.
The Relationship Between Sciatica and Sleep
The relationship between sciatica and sleep is a complicated one, to say the least. Sciatica pain appears to influence sleep quality — and vice versa. Indeed, people with sciatica routinely struggle to fall and stay asleep, but those who manage to get a good night’s rest often report a decrease in the severity of their symptoms. Thus, prioritizing your sleep may be crucial to managing your sciatica pain.
How to Sleep with Sciatica
Learning how to sleep with sciatica is a key component of your path to recovery. Here are a few tips to help you get the shut-eye you need so you can heal faster, feel better and get back to the activities you love.
1. Adjust Your Sleeping Position
No, there is no best sleeping position for sciatica, but you may find certain positions more comfortable than others. Multiple studies have shown that sleeping in a supine position (i.e., lying on your back) can help improve lower back pain. For best results, use a wedge pillow to prop yourself into a reclining position and place a pillow under your knees. If you sleep on your side, consider using a U-shaped body pillow that gently cradles your body. Body pillows are great for providing spine and pelvic support, which may help alleviate sciatica symptoms.
2. Take Charge of Stress
Have you ever noticed how your sciatica flare-ups tend to coincide with stressful times in your life? There’s a reason for that. When we experience stress, our muscles tense up and make the pain seem worse. (Stress also tends to increase at night, which could partly explain why our pain perception is greater in the evening.) Practicing yoga, massage, meditation or deep breathing before bed may help improve symptoms.
You can also keep your stress levels in check by using a weighted blanket, which is scientifically proven to reduce stress and insomnia at night. Gravity Blankets offers a wide range of weighted products and accessories, from weighted eye masks and robes to special cooling weighted blankets for hot sleepers. (Pro tip: Don’t forget to pick up a weighted blanket cover for your new bedtime investment!)Eye Masks Shop Cooling Weighted Blankets
3. Upgrade Your Mattress
If your sciatica pain tends to peak in the morning, a soft mattress may be to blame. While a soft mattress may feel good on your joints, it can bend your spine while sleeping, increasing pressure on your already-irritated nerve.
For a pain-free night’s sleep, most doctors recommend a medium-firm mattress. This type of mattress will provide the comfort and softness you crave without knocking your spine out of alignment.
4. Try Sleeping on the Floor
It might sound odd, but for many people with sciatica, sleeping on the floor is the best way to achieve a comfortable night’s sleep. Sleeping on the floor supports the natural curvature of the spine better than a soft mattress, making it easier to maintain good sleep posture.
For best results, you’ll want to invest in a comfortable mattress designed to be laid on the floor. A futon floor mattress is a great option because it provides the right amount of padding and can be tucked away when not in use. For more tips, check out our complete guide to sleeping on the floor.
5. Do Gentle Stretches or Yoga
If you haven’t already incorporated sciatica stretches into your daily routine, consider this your friendly reminder to start. Certain stretches, like reclining pigeon pose and sitting spinal stretch, can improve sciatica symptoms by externally rotating the hips, providing some much-needed relief from nerve pain.
For a pain-free slumber, consider incorporating these stretches into your nightly routine:
- Knees to chest
- Cobra stretch
- Reclining or forward pigeon pose
- Groin and long abductor muscle stretch
- Seated hip stretch
- Standing hamstring stretch
6. Start with Cold Therapy
During the first 48 hours of experiencing sciatica symptoms, many doctors recommend using cold therapy to reduce the initial inflammation of the sciatic nerve. Cold therapy works by decreasing blood flow, which ultimately decreases the flow of chemical inflammatory mediators.
Wrap an ice pack in a paper towel and place it on your rear pelvis for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Do this every two hours for the first three days of your injury. (Tip: If you don’t have an ice pack handy, a frozen bag of peas will work in a pinch.)Weighted Robes
7. Take a Hot Bath Before Bed
Taking a hot bath before bed is another way to soothe sciatic pain and promote a quality slumber. The warm water will help relax your tense muscles and activate the body’s parasympathetic response, which is the system responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” response.
A hot shower will also cause your blood vessels to dilate, allowing more blood, oxygen and nutrients to flow to the damaged nerve, promoting healing.
If you prefer to shower in the morning, you can achieve similar results with a heat pack. For maximum relief, apply the heat pack to your rear pelvis, which is the area where your sciatic nerve root begins.
8. Improve Your Sleep Hygiene
If your sciatica is ruining your sleep, try improving your sleep hygiene. Put simply, sleep hygiene refers to the behaviors one can do to set themselves up for a great night’s sleep. Practicing good sleep hygiene can reduce the likelihood of sleep interruptions and create more consistency in your nightly routine.
Here are a few quick tips for healthy sleep:
- Avoid excess caffeine and alcohol
- Create a cool, dark and quiet sleep environment
- Adhere to regular bedtimes and wake-up times, even on the weekends
- Remove electronics from the bedroom
- Eat a light dinner
9. Eat a Magnesium-Rich Dinner
In the evening, load up on leafy greens, nuts, seeds, whole grains and other foods rich in magnesium. Numerous studies have found that getting an adequate intake of magnesium can reduce muscle tension and ease nerve pain.
According to Psychology Today, magnesium seems to reduce the severity of a pain-carrying neurotransmitter called “NMDA,” effectively lowering a person’s perception of pain. Magnesium also helps relax tense muscles, making it easier to fall into a calm sleep with fewer interruptions.
If you don’t think you’re getting enough magnesium from your diet, talk to your doctor about taking a magnesium supplement.
10. Try Acupuncture
You’ve tried everything to ease your sciatic pain and get a good night’s sleep — but have you tried booking an appointment with an acupuncturist? While allowing someone to put tiny needles in your body might seem like the opposite of relaxing, evidence suggests that acupuncture may have a beneficial effect on both pain and insomnia. Some experts believe that acupuncture may help relieve sciatic pain by releasing feel-good endorphins that block the nerve cells that receive the body’s pain signals.
The risks of acupuncture are low as long as you find a licensed professional who knows their stuff. To find a credible acupuncturist, ask your doctor for a referral.
Sciatica pain can significantly impact the quality of your sleep, but there are many steps you can take to reduce your symptoms. Simple changes like reducing stress and investing in a supportive mattress are options worth considering if you have trouble sleeping with sciatica.
If you have chronic sciatica, it’s best to work with your doctor. They can help create a treatment plan to reduce your sciatica symptoms so you can get the quality rest you need each night.