What is Sciatica?
Sciatica is a pain in the leg caused by irritation and/or compression of the sciatic nerve. The longest nerve in your body is the sciatic nerve. It originates in your lower back, and splits up at your hips. It then runs down your hips, buttocks, legs, and feet on both sides.
Sciatica usually comes from a herniated disc in the lower part of your spine. The lower part of the spine is the lumbar spine. The bones that make up your spine are vertebrae. The vertebrae are separated and cushioned by flat, flexible, round discs of connective tissue. Years of use, or an injury can cause a disc to wear down. If a disc gets worn down, the soft center pushes out from the hard outer ring. This puts pressure on the nerves around it and causes pain. If the nerve affected is the sciatic nerve, the pain can be particularly intense.
What are the symptoms of Sciatica?
The most common sign of sciatica is pain that radiates from your lower spine to your buttock and down the back of your leg. It’s possible to feel pain anywhere along the nerve pathway. However, it’s more common to follow a path from your low back to your buttock and the back of your leg.
The level of pain you may experience from sciatica varies. Some people experience only a mild ache. Others experience a sharp, burning sensation or excruciating pain. At times, it may feel like a jolt or electric shock. Sneezing, coughing, or sitting for long periods of time may make your pain worse. It’s more common for only one side of your body to experience pain.
It’s also possible to experience numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness in your leg or foot.
The more serious symptoms of sciatica include:
- Loss of feeling in the affected leg
- Weakness in the affected leg
- Loss of bowel or bladder function
What causes Sciatica?
When you have a herniated disc in your spine or have a bone spur on your vertebrae, your sciatic nerve may become pinched. It’s also possible for a tumor to compress your sciatic nerve. Diabetes can also damage the sciatic nerve.
There are some risk factors for sciatica:
- If your job requires you to carry heavy objects, sit for long periods of time, or twist your back frequently, you may be at a higher risk for developing sciatica.
- Wear and tear on your spine after many years of moving can erode discs. Herniated discs and bone spurs are the most common causes of sciatica
- If you are overweight or obsese, the added stress on your spine can cause sciatica
- Prolonged sitting
- If you are sedentary and sit for prolonged periods of time, you are more likely to develop sciatica than people who are active
- High blood sugar can damage nerve pathways. People who have diabetes have high blood sugar which can cause damage to the sciatic nerve.
How is Sciatica diagnosed?
Your doctor will first learn about your medical history, especially concerning your back pain. He or she will want to know how long it has lasted, if you have numbness or weakness in your legs, and if you’ve tried anything to relieve the pain that worked. Your doctor will also ask about your lifestyle to find out what kinds of activities you do regularly. The next step will be a physical exam. Your doctor might ask you to perform certain exercises to see if they make your pain worse.
If the pain is severe and won’t go away, your doctor might order some tests. These could include x-rays, CT scans, MRIs and EMG. These tests will look for herniated discs, bone spurs, and compressed nerves.
Most sciatica cases resolve within a few weeks without surgery. Usually doctors will suggest over-the-coutnter pain medications. If these don’t work, your doctor might prescribe stronger anti-inflammatories or muscle relaxants. Physical therapy and/or steroid injections might also be helpful at this point. Surgery is recommended only after the patient has tried several non-invasive treatments.
How can you prevent Sciatica?
For some people, it’s almost impossible to prevent sciatica. People who are young and/or inactive may take steps that will prevent, or slow the onset of sciatica:
- Regular exercise
- In order to keep your back muscles strong, it’s also important to strengthen your core muscles. This includes your abdomen and lower back. These muscle groups are important for good posture and spinal alignment.
- Your doctor can recommend specific exercises that will help you.
- Keep good posture when you sit
- You want your back to maintain its normal curve.
- Choose seats with good lower back support, armrests, and a swivel base.
- Placing pillows or towels on your lower back while sitting may help maintaining your back’s natural curve
- Use proper body mechanics
- If you lift something heavy, use power from your legs, rather than your back. Move up and down, keeping your back straight. Bend with your knees and keep the weight close to your body. Ask someone for help lifting something heavy if you feel you are straining your back.
- If you need to stand for long periods of time, try to move your feet around periodically. It also helps to rest one foot on something a few inches off the ground.
How do you treat Sciatica?
When treated properly, mild sciatica goes away over time. If you’ve followed your doctor’s directions and a physical therapy regimen closely and your symptoms persist, you should call your doctor. In the event you have any severe symptoms of sciatica, such as bowel/bladder control issues or muscle weakness in your legs, call your doctor.