Did you know that over 3 million people in the U.S. have sciatica? It’s a lot more common than most people think and one of the most misdiagnosed body issues out there. Dr. Mike saw this happen all the time after over a decade of chiropractic work. Often people say that they have sciatica, but what they really have is low back pain. In the event you do suffer from sciatica, or irritation to the sciatic nerve, you’re probably wondering the best way to sleep with it. Today, we go over 10 practical tips on how to sleep with sciatica.

What Is Sciatica?

First off, let’s get the definition of sciatica down. Sciatica is not low back pain. It is nerve pain that hits when your sciatic nerve is compressed, injured, or irritated, and can run down one or both legs. This pain usually starts in the spine and radiates down one side of the body. So, how do you know if you have sciatica?

Sciatica Versus Low Back Pain

Sciatic pain happens when your sciatic nerve is compressed. If this nerve isn’t compressed, you’re probably suffering from low back pain or tightness, not sciatica. Here are some sensations of sciatica to help you determine what’s going on with your back: 

  • Numbness in one or both of your legs.
  • Sharp or burning sensations that shoot from your low back to your feet.
  • A “pins-and-needles” sensation in your leg, foot, or toes.
  • Muscle weakness in one or both of your legs or feet.

Main Causes of Sciatica

Sciatica basically happens when the sciatic nerve gets pinched. This occurs when a herniated disk in the spine or an overgrowth of bone (called bone spurs) form on the spinal bones. Sometimes diabetes can damage the nerve or (in very rare cases) a tumor can put pressure on the nerve. It can also be caused by inflammation, infection, or another medical condition which puts pressure on the nerve.

Sciatica Test: The “Slump” Test

Try this simple sciatica test to determine if you do have sciatica. That’s our first tip. Here’s a step-by-step guide to follow to determine if your sciatic nerve is being irritated: 

Step 1: Put your right leg on a box (you will want to check both sides and alternate which leg you’re standing on to test both legs).

Step 2: Pull your right toes towards your face.

Step 3: Take in a big inhale, round your back, bear down, and lean forward coming into a slump position to stretch out your sciatic nerve. 

If you have a herniation, it may touch the nerve in your back and cause pain and irritate that sciatica. The point of this test is to check for lumbar nerve root impingement or irritation. The test is considered positive when it produces pain or burning down your leg.

Now, you need to get to the bottom of what causes this irritation, which is an imbalance in the body! You can sometimes reduce this pain by doing a QL massage or stretch and/or a hip flexor stretch to decompress that side.

Sleeping with Sciatica: 10 Helpful Tips

Start with Proper Spinal Alignment

The best sleeping position is one that keeps your spine, hips, and pelvis aligned. This promotes healthy spinal alignment and reduces pain. You want to support the natural curve of your neck and spine while asleep.

We recommend sleeping on your back or side and using pillows to support your best alignment. If you need to sleep on your stomach, we suggest placing a pillow underneath your pelvis to keep your hips and spine in a neutral position. Try to sleep with your forehead angled towards your head pillow instead of turned to one side to avoid neck pain.

Use Pillows for Additional Support

We recommend using pillows to support yourself while sleeping to sleep better and more aligned. If you’re a back sleeper, we suggest placing a pillow underneath your knees to help reduce spinal extension (where the spine is in a backwards position).

Place a thin pillow under your head to ensure proper neutral head alignment. Practice caution with those massive foam pillows as they can tweak your neck.

If you’re a side sleeper, place a pillow between your knees to keep your spine neutral while asleep.

Try Side Sleeping

Your pain can vary according to which area of your sciatic nerve is being affected. You might feel pain tingling down the front, back, or side of your leg. This pain could be constant or might bother you when you sit or lie down in certain positions.

Many people find relief sleeping on the side that isn’t experiencing pain. For additional support, you can even place a pillow between your knees to keep your hips aligned and take pressure off your pelvis.

Try Sleeping on Your Back

Many people find relief from sciatica by sleeping on their backs as this relieves pressure on the nerve. You can try elevating your knees by placing a pillow underneath them to encourage proper alignment while sleeping.

Do Some Stretches Before Bed

You can try some gentle stretches before bed to alleviate sciatica pain. Here are two we like that provide some relief: 

Child’s pose

  • Start on all fours in a tabletop position with your shoulders stacked over your wrists and your hips over your knees.
  • Widen your knees, draw your big toes together to touch and sink your hips back towards your heels. Extend your arms out in front of you and place your palms down.
  • Sink into the stretch by relaxing your upper body and shifting your weight into your hips. You can determine how deep you’d like to go and adjust the placement of your knees to determine where you’d like to feel the stretch.
  • Hold for 2-5 minutes or longer, depending on how you feel.

Supine twist 

  • Draw your knees into your chest.
  • Release both knees over to the right and gaze over your left shoulder.
  • Feel the stretch and don’t worry if your knees don’t touch the floor.
  • Breathe and hold for 30 seconds to 4 minutes and then switch sides.

Elevate Your Knees

Sleeping on your back supine allows your body weight to be evenly distributed, placing less pressure on the sides of your body. Adding a pillow underneath your knees helps maintain the natural curve of your spine and provides relief for your hip flexors, reducing sciatica pain.

Sleep in a Fetal Position

Sleeping in the fetal position can provide you with pain relief. To do so, pull your knees into your chest. When you do this, it helps increase the space in between your vertebrae, which helps alleviate the compression of the sciatic nerve.

Avoid Super Cushion-y Pillows

You can actually overdo it on the pillows when sleeping. Try to find pillows that encourage proper spinal alignment and aren’t overly cushion-y. If you’re a back sleeper, get a pillow that supports the natural curve of your neck, so one that is a bit thinner. The angle of your neck shouldn’t move when your place your head on this pillow.

If you’re a side sleeper, you need a pillow with medium firmness that keeps the head aligned with the rest of your spine.

If you’re a stomach sleeper, you need a pillow that is soft and thin to avoid putting your neck in an odd position.

Try Foam Rolling

According to the American Osteopathic Association, foam rolling may help reduce the nerve compression that causes sciatica. Here’s one foam rolling technique you can use:

  • Sit on your foam roller, placing it directly on the back of your hip, upper buttock area (the fleshy area not the bone).
  • Cross one leg over the other, placing your foot on top of your lower quad.
  • Slowly roll yourself over the foam roller, pausing anywhere you feel a “tight” “crunchy” or “weird” sensation. Breathe into those areas and try to release them.
  • Don’t apply a ton of force or attempt to fight your way through tightness, try to breath and release any tightness you find.

Enroll in the MoveU Program

Remember your sciatic pain won’t just go away with the above techniques. You need to understand where your imbalance is coming from. That imbalance is most likely the reason you’re experiencing pressure on your sciatic nerve, which is causing that intense burning pain! If you’re ready to fix your sciatica for good, check out the MoveU program. We teach you how to fix your muscle imbalances so you can say goodbye to pain FOR GOOD.