Both of my parents have intermittent, intense back pain. I didn't so much as know what a sciatic nerve was before both of them complained of the sharp pain that shot down each of theirs—my mom even went under the knife to ameliorate her crippling sciatica. What happens is a spinal disc usually slips or bulges, pushing on the sciatic nerve (the largest nerve in the body), which then triggers pain. According to science, if I were to draw a Punnett square and cross both of my parents' sciatic genes, I'd inevitably inherit it myself (middle school science, I clamored I'd never use you one day, yet here we are). But this genetic predisposition made me assume the pain would occur midlife like it did for my parents—what I'd later discover, though, is that I was half-right (right about having sciatica, wrong about the time frame in which I'd get it).
It all happened after a wedding this past spring. I was wearing high heels and dancing like a lunatic (as one does), and the next morning, I could barely walk. Just as my parents had described, a sharp, stabbing pain shot from my lower back all the way down my right leg and into my foot. I crawled to the bathroom while writhing in pain, popped ibuprofen, and prayed it would all be over soon. It was, but the next morning it returned, so I hobbled to the walk-in. As expected, the doctor confirmed it was sciatica, which was presumably brought on sometime around Hava Nagila. She gave me some prescription-strength painkillers and told me to start going to physical therapy. I only did the former out of laziness but actually discovered that yoga was my own form of rehab. Within a few weeks, the pain almost entirely went away, but on days when I wore heels, I'd again find myself crawling toward the bathroom. For anyone else who's ever experienced this, I sympathize with you—it sucks—but there are nonsurgical steps you can take to minimize the pain or, better, completely eliminate it.
See a Chiropractor
If you have a severely herniated disc that's bulging and pushing on the sciatic nerve, tissue may spill out from underneath the disc and could disconnect, which is even more reason to see a healthcare professional to ameliorate the problem. A chiropractor can align your discs and relieve pressure.
Turns out I was onto something with my weekly yoga sessions. Several yoga poses lengthen the spine and reduce inflammation, especially Pigeon Pose, which targets the piriformis muscle located at the base of the spine—perfect for sciatic relief. Stretching in general is a plus, too, like lying on the floor and bringing your knees to your chest.
By definition, acupuncture stimulates "acupoints" in the body to help with issues related to nausea, migraines, anxiety, depression, and even infertility. Traditional Chinese medicine suggests there are pathways, or meridians, throughout the body, and if the flow of energy gets blocked, the disruption can lead to the aforementioned ailments. In terms of sciatica, this belongs to the gallbladder and bladder meridian, so Yanglingquan (GB 34) and Huantiao (GB 30) are two key acupoints for pain relief where tiny needles are inserted by an acupuncturist to effectively relieve pain.
Get a Massage
Twist your arm, right? Massage therapy is an excellent way to alleviate sciatic pain. By working on tight muscles that are pushing on the nerve or muscle spasms that are triggering the nerve, you can greatly lessen the pain.
Take an Anti-Inflammatory
Because of the dangerous side effects of NSAIDs, try taking a regular herbal anti-inflammatory like devil's claw or turmeric to decrease pressure and inflammation in the spinal column that's pressing on the sciatic nerve.
Prolonged sitting or inactivity can actually exacerbate your sciatica, so look into guided exercise with a trained physical therapist to increase flexibility and strengthen supportive back muscles. You should work with a professional instead of trying to exercise on your own, though, as overexertion or sharp, sudden movements could make the pain worse.
Ed note: Please speak with a doctor before trying any treatment for sciatic pain.