The sciatic nerve, which extends from the base of the spine in the lower back through the buttocks to the lower extremities, is the largest nerve in the body. For that reason, when the nerve is pinched or inflamed for any reason, the pain is often extremely uncomfortable at best and debilitating at worst.
This nerve pain, known as sciatica, can cause pain in the buttocks, thighs, lower legs, and feet and often worsens when you sit or lie down — meaning that the condition often interrupts sleep. A lack of sleep can increase the perception of pain, creating an endless cycle of misery. The good news is that you can relieve the symptoms of sciatic nerve pain, and soon you’ll be having sweet dreams once again.
The Sciatic Nerve — Sleep Connection
One of the most common ways to manage the pain from an inflamed or irritated sciatic nerve is to maintain good posture. Standing up straight, with your ears in line with your shoulders, your shoulders in line with your hips, behind tucked in and knees slightly bent, is often the best way to avoid irritating the nerve. While it’s easy to maintain good posture during waking hours, it’s all but impossible to maintain proper body alignment when you’re asleep. Chances are when you’re in deep sleep, you’re not consciously thinking about keeping your shoulders straight.
That relaxed state usually allows your body to lose proper alignment, and staying in the same position for several hours — a position that puts extra pressure on the lower back, and subsequently the sciatic nerve — creates additional inflammation or pinching, which exacerbates the problem.
In some cases, you might not notice the pain until you wake in the morning and feel shooting pains through the back of your legs. In more severe cases, your sleep position might cause immediate pain, particularly on one side of the body. You might feel generalized pain in one leg or perhaps a burning or tingling sensation, but the effect is the same: you wake up.
It’s not just improper body alignment that can worsen sciatic nerve pain, though. An old or inadequate mattress can also contribute to the problem. If your mattress sags, your muscles automatically compensate to support your body.
Instead of your weight being supported by the mattress as intended, your muscles work overtime to keep your body supported. Lumps in the mattress can also compound the problem, creating more pressure on the nerve and causing increased pain. Again, when you’re in pain, you wake up, disrupting your sleep cycle, and losing precious time that your body needs to rejuvenate and stay healthy.
Relieving Pain at Night
Since staying up all night to maintain perfect posture probably isn’t an option, you’ll need to find other options to manage the pain.
The simplest solution is to modify your sleep position. In general, the best position to avoid sciatic nerve pain is sleeping on your side; sleeping on your stomach or back can further irritate the nerve and only increase the problem. There are always exceptions, of course, so try different positions to see which works best for you.
If sleeping on your side does prove to be the best option for you, support your upper leg by placing a pillow between your knees. This prevents the common problem of your upper knee sliding forward while the rest of your body moves in the opposite direction, causing a rotation of the lower back that increases pain.
If sleeping on your back is most comfortable, place a pillow underneath your lower back and another under your knees to help maintain the proper alignment, and reduce pain.
Of course, your sleeping position doesn’t matter if your mattress is old and inadequate. Ideally, mattresses should be replaced every seven years, according to the Better Sleep Council, or sooner if they show signs of wear such as sagging, lumps, or exposed coils.
If a new mattress isn’t an option right now, try adding plywood supports between your mattress and box spring to support the mattress or move the mattress to the floor. That little bit of extra support could make the difference between a good night’s sleep and tossing and turning all night.
There is no reason that sciatic nerve pain should keep you up at night. However, if you try adjusting your sleep position and creating the right sleep environment to no avail, consider seeking outside help. Ongoing, chronic nerve pain in your legs could be a sign of a larger problem, and additional interventions may be necessary. Your sleep depends on it.