Sciatica is an irritation of the largest single nerve in the human body—the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back on down. A common symptom associated with this condition is sharp, shooting pain that extends into the leg, and usually only one leg is affected. It’s also not unusual for people with sciatica to report discomfort that gets worse when lying down to rest or sleep. This characteristic of sciatica can make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep, but why does this happen?
When lying down, your spine’s natural inward curve (lumbar lordosis) is more prominent than when you’re sitting or reclining. As your position shifts as you rest, nerve root passageways (foramina) become narrower. The result is less space for sensitive nerve roots, and when nerves have less room, they’re more likely to be irritated enough to trigger sciatic nerve pain.
You’ll also be more likely to experience pain when lying down if narrow spinal nerve passageways (also referred to as lumbar spinal stenosis) are further crowded by:
• Damaged or herniated discs
• Bone spurs
• Loose vertebral bodies
If any of these conditions become severe enough, effective long-term treatment may require surgical intervention, such as spinal fusion surgery. Los Angeles patients should consult a spine specialist who is best equipped to provide a proper diagnosis and create a customized treatment plan for pain relief.
Elevating your legs slightly with a pillow or two placed beneath your knees is one way to shift your spine’s lower alignment enough to minimize nerve passageway narrowing. You may also be able to reduce your lower spine’s inward curvature as you sleep by:
• Using an adjustable mattress
• Resting or napping in a reclining chair
• Propping up your knees slightly
Side sleepers sometimes experience sciatic-related leg pain as well. This is more likely to happen if you sleep on the same side as the leg that’s affected by sciatic nerve irritation. Similar discomfort may occur if you sleep with your hips tilted too far on the affected side, which may shift your spine’s curve and “pinch” or compress nerve roots.
Lying on the unaffected leg is a common piece of advice for those with sciatic pain. However, this doesn’t always result in relief. Some people who sleep on their unaffected side end up shifting the hip on the opposite side upward enough to irritate a nerve root in the affected area. Try experimenting with different sleeping positions if you have regular issues with leg pain as you rest. You may also be able to minimize sciatic pain when lying down by:
• Placing a pillow between your legs to maintain your hip-spine alignment
• Taking anti-inflammatory medication shortly before going to bed to ease nerve irritation
• Investing in a high-quality mattress that’s supportive in the right spots for your lower back, hips, and legs
• Exploring your options with ergonomic pillows or cushions
If you do experience pain in your thighs or legs when lying down that keeps you from sleeping well, don’t automatically assume it’s sciatica. It’s important to get an accurate diagnosis from a specialist such as a Los Angeles spine surgeon, since similar symptoms could be produced by peripheral arterial disease (PAD), muscle cramps, or the irritation of the piriformis muscle, a muscle in the buttocks that’s close to the sciatic nerve.
If you’re experiencing sudden, severe, or long-lasting spinal pain of any kind, make sure to consult a specialist for accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment. The pioneering physicians at The Spine Institute have experience with every aspect of neck and back health, so give us a call today at 310-828-7757 to schedule a consultation.