Sciatica is pain that stems from the sciatic nerve becoming irritated and can be mild to severe- usually due to a compressed nerve root in your lower- or lumbar- spine.
In many cases, sciatica is often confused with back pain. However, the thing that makes sciatica different is that it is not limited to the back.
Your sciatic nerve is the widest and longest nerve in your body, running from your lower back through your buttocks and down your legs.
It ends just below your knee. The sciatic nerve is the one that controls several of your lower leg muscles and allows this area to be sensitive to the touch.
Be aware that sciatica is not a condition in and of itself, but a symptom of another issue that involves the sciatic nerve.
2 Types of Sciatica
There are two different types of sciatica including:
Typically, when you have acute sciatica, you are not going to need professional treatment.
You can control these symptoms by using OTC medications along with exercise and hot/cold packs. This form of sciatica will last from four to eight weeks.
On the other hand, chronic sciatica will most likely need physical therapy including applied heat, exercise, and other methods.
In more serious cases- which are rare- surgery may be necessary. This form of sciatica will last longer than eight weeks.
You should know that sciatica is a very common symptom of a few different conditions. Your spine is made up of three different parts:
The discs are made of strong, resilient cartilage, acting as a cushion between your vertebrae. The discs allow your spine to be flexible.
When a disc has been pushed out of place, the condition is known as a herniated disc. This can put pressure on your sciatic nerve- which causes the symptoms to flare up.
Other sciatica causes include the following:
- Lumbar Spinal Stenosis
- Cauda Equina Syndrome
In many cases, there will be no single, clear cause for your sciatica. Absolutely anything that irritates your sciatic nerve can result in sciatic pain.
However, due to the fact that a combination of bone, muscle, and joint strain can result in the condition of sciatica, the condition is much more common in individuals over the age of 40.
Sciatica Risk Factors
You probably already know that a risk factor is defined as something that will increase your chances of developing a particular condition/disorder or disease.
Some of the most common risk factors for sciatica include the following:
Age: since discs deteriorate over time, individuals over the age of 40 have an increased risk of developing the condition of sciatica
Profession: individuals employed in a position where they must lift heavy loads for a long period of time are at an increased risk of developing this condition
Sedentary lifestyle: individuals who are not active are much more likely to develop this condition than those who are more active
Of course, the primary symptom of this condition is shooting pain along the sciatic nerve from your lower back, through your buttocks, and down the back of either of your legs- typically, it is only one leg that is affected.
The pain can be a very mild soreness, sharp pain, or extreme discomfort- or anywhere in between. This pain is likely to be aggravated by sitting for a long period of time.
You may also experience numbness in one of your legs along the nerve. You may have numbness in one area of your leg and pain in another.
The final symptom of sciatica is a tingling/pins and needles sensation in your toes and feet.
If your sciatica symptoms are mild and do not last more than eight weeks, you’re likely experiencing acute sciatica and will not likely require medical attention. Typically, acute sciatica will resolve on its own.
A complete medical history will most likely help to speed up the diagnosis process. Your physician will have you do basic exercises to stretch your sciatic nerve.
If you have a shooting pain while doing these exercises, chances are that you have the condition of sciatica.
On the other hand, if your pain lasts for more than eight weeks, your physician may wish to perform imaging tests such as MRI or x-rays to find out what is causing your sciatic nerve to be compressed and causing the symptoms.
Following are the possible treatments for both acute and chronic sciatica.
In most cases, self-care measures will help to resolve cases of acute sciatica, including the following:
OTC Painkillers: these will help to relieve the pain related to sciatica. Of course, you’ll want to make sure to discuss these with your physician- not all painkillers are acceptable for everyone.
Exercises: light stretching or walking can help control the symptoms of sciatica.
Hot/Cold packs: these help to reduce pain and often your physician will recommend that you switch between the two.
On the other hand, chronic sciatica may not respond to just these self-care measures and will often also require medical treatment such as the following:
Prescription painkillers: these are stronger and much more likely to control the pain than the OTC painkillers
Physical therapy: learn some exercises to strengthen your back and increase your flexibility, as well as strain prevention techniques.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: this will help you to manage pain by learning how you react to your pain.
Chiropractic treatment: this will help to maneuver your spine to relieve pressure on your nerves- which will relieve pain.
Surgery: of course, if your symptoms do not respond to any of the above, surgery may be necessary. Surgical options for sciatica include the following:
- Lumbar Laminectomy: this will widen your spinal cord to relieve pressure
- Discectomy: this is a partial or entire removal of the disc that is herniated
Of course, as with anything else, depending upon the cause of your condition, your surgeon will review the benefits and risks of surgery and tell you which would be the best option for you.
While we all want the best possible option, in some cases, the condition of sciatica will not be able to be prevented.
Still, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk factors for developing this condition including the following:
Exercising regularly– primarily focusing on strengthening your core muscles which are necessary for your correct posture
Practicing proper posture- by sitting/standing correctly and lifting things correctly, as well as choosing a pillow and mattress that will support your spine, you can reduce your chances of developing this condition.