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What is Sciatica?


Sciatica is a symptom of a problem affecting the sciatic nerve, which is the longest nerve in the body. The sciatic nerve begins in the lower portion of your spinal cord and runs through the hips, buttocks and down each leg. This important nerve is responsible for your ability to feel and move your legs and feet. Sciatica normally affects only one side of the body. Along with pain, a problem with the sciatic nerve can also cause other symptoms, such as leg and feet weakness and numbness.

Sciatica pain can range from moderate to severe and make it difficult to sit down, walk and perform daily activities. It can come on suddenly or gradually worsen over time depending on what’s causing it.

If you’re struggling to do the things that really matter, you’re not alone. Sciatica has become increasingly common among Americans. If you’ve been suffering from sciatica pain, Back Pain Centers of America is here for you. Call [sc name=”patient_phone_number_dash”] now to speak with a patient coordinator who can help match you with a board-certified orthopedist ready to treat your sciatica and get you on the road to recovery.

Sciatica can impact your daily life

Sciatica Causes and Risk Factors

Anything that injures the sciatic nerve can cause sciatica. The most common causes include:

  • Herniated discs – The bones in your spine (vertebrae) are separated by cartilage that is filled with a thick jelly-like material that acts as a cushion between the bones. When the outer portion of the disc wears down or ruptures, the material inside can protrude and place pressure on, or “pinch,” the sciatic nerve, causing pain and numbness. Herniated discs can result from injury or everyday wear and tear.
  • Stenosis – Spinal stenosis is a condition characterized by the narrowing of the spinal canal, which is the space that surrounds your spinal cord. The pressure placed on the spinal cord and the sciatic nerve roots cause sciatica.
  • Spondylolisthesis – This is associated with degenerative disc disorder. With spondylolisthesis, one vertebra extends over another, which can trap the sciatic nerve.

In some cases, a tumor pressing on the sciatic nerve can be the cause of sciatica.

There are certain factors and behaviors that can increase the risk of developing sciatica. These include:

  • Aging – The risk of degenerative disc disorders—the most common causes of sciatica—increases as we age, because of everyday wear and tear.
  • Sitting for long periods – Those who sit for prolonged periods have a higher risk of developing sciatica.
  • Obesity – Excess body weight puts more stress on the spine, resulting in changes to the spine that can cause sciatica.
  • Diabetes – Having diabetes may increase the risk of nerve damage.
  • Certain occupations – Jobs that involve heavy lifting or sitting for prolonged periods, such as at a desk or in a vehicle, due to increased stress on the spine.

Sciatica Symptoms

Sciatica consists of pain that extends down your lower back, buttocks and leg along the path of the sciatic nerve. Many describe sciatica pain as a bad leg cramp that doesn’t let up. Sciatica can cause different types of pain, from a dull aching to shooting pain that radiates down the back of the leg, making standing and sitting difficult. The pain can worsen when straining, such as when coughing or sneezing.

Other sciatica symptoms include:

  • Leg weakness
  • Numbness or tingling in the leg
  • Burning sensation
  • Numbness in the toes

Seek immediate medical care if your pain follows an injury or accident or if your pain is accompanied by trouble controlling your bladder or bowels, as this can indicate cauda equina syndrome, which is a medical emergency.

sciatica pain

Sciatica Treatment Options

Treatment for sciatica involves a combination of rest, physical therapy and medication to relieve pain and inflammation, while also increasing mobility.

Common sciatica treatments include:

  • Pain medication – Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can relieve pain and inflammation and help with stiffness. If your pain is severe, you may be given prescription pain relievers for short-term use.
  • Muscle relaxants – These may be given to treat muscle spasms.
  • Cold and heat packs– Applying a cold pack can help reduce swelling and inflammation and applying heat helps loosen stiff muscles. Often alternating between hot and cold can help treat sciatica.
  • Physical therapy – A physical therapist can teach you a combination of stretches and other exercises to help decrease pain and improve motion and flexibility. Your exercise program may also include exercise to help improve your posture and the prevention of sciatica in the future.
  • Corticosteroid injections – An anti-inflammatory medication is injected into the space around the lower spinal cord to help reduce inflammation and relieve pain and stiffness providing the body more time to heal itself before taking further intervention.

Rarely, surgery may be recommended as a treatment for sciatica. Prevention of sciatica may be possible with regular exercise, good posture and modifications to the way you move and lift. Surgery is reserved for those who don’t respond to nonsurgical sciatica treatments or for those experiencing severe or worsening pain.

Surgical options for sciatica include:

  • Microdiscectomy – This is the most commonly used surgical procedure to treat sciatica from a herniated disc in the lower spine. Only the portion of the herniated disc that is pinching the sciatic nerve is removed through a tiny incision.
  • Laminectomy – A lumbar laminectomy may be recommended when sciatica is caused by lumbar spinal stenosis. In this procedure, a portion of the vertebra and any disc material that is putting pressure on the sciatic nerve is removed.

Don’t delay relief. At Back Pain Centers of America, we’re ready to help you recover your active lifestyle as soon as possible. Call us now at [sc name=”patient_phone_number_dash”] and take the first step toward recovery. It could be the most important call you ever make.

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