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Overview of Sciatica

Sciatica is a form of pain that afflicts many people experiencing low back (lumbar) pain. It typically serves as an indication or symptom of a more serious, underlying condition.

Characterized by localized pain in the hips, buttocks, and back of legs, sciatica is produced by pressure placed on the sciatic nerve. The pain may or may not be associated with low back pain. The sciatic nerve runs from the lower part of the spine down the back of both legs and down to the feet. Conditions related to the muscles, bones, or joints of the lower lumbar spine are what can lead to cases of symptoms related to sciatica. Sciatica can feel like a dull, throbbing sensation or a repetitive sharp electric shock-like pain. Other sciatica symptoms include:

  • Tingling or burning sensation in the back of the thighs
  • Pain along one side of the body
  • Shooting pain up and down the leg
  • Difficulty standing or sitting
  • Sharp pain that may increase with situations where you are “bearing down” (examples include laughing, coughing, or sneezing)

Sciatica is most often treatable, but it often points to other lower back pain conditions related to the surrounding structures (discs, nerves, spinal alignment, etc).  To properly diagnose the cause of sciatica, seek the advice of a physician who can order the appropriate tests to provide you with a diagnosis and proper treatment options.

Conditions Causing Sciatica

Many lower back pain conditions can cause sciatica to occur. Among the most common are:

  • Herniated discs: Also known as a ruptured or slipped disc, herniated discs cause the inner shock-absorbing substance of intervertebral discs to leak, forming build up, inflammation and pressure on the surrounding nerves in the spinal canal or as they exit the spine. This occurs mostly around the lower spine where the sciatic nerve starts, creating pain along the hips and back of legs.
  • Spinal stenosis: As people age, the spinal vertebrae begin to wear out and become arthritic, giving rise to thickened tissues (bone and ligaments) that can constrict the space around the spinal nerves thus causing inflammation and pressure-related pain.
  • Degenerative disc disease: Similar to spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease is characterized by wear and tear of the intervertebral discs. When this happens, bones and joints thin out and cause them to rub against each other, creating pain. This can occur on the lower portion of the spine and produce tension and inflammation in tissues related to the sciatic nerve.
  • Spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis: There are conditions when the lower lumbar vertebra may change shape or even sustain a fracture from repetitive stress or injury leading to a break or misalignment in the lower lumbar vertebra. These conditions can lead to low back (lumbar) pain, and compression of spinal nerves, or nerve roots resulting in sciatica.
  • Pregnancy: Pregnancy weight gain, postural changes, fluid imbalance, and hormone shifts can exert effects on the spine and low back anatomy that can trigger sciatic-related low back pain and sciatica. 

Treating Sciatica

Fortunately, sciatica is treatable in most cases with medications, proper exercise, or physical therapy.  In some cases where it does not resolve treatments may include traction therapy, interventional pain procedures like spinal injections, or surgery for the worst cases that are not improving. 

There are many exercises and home care remedies for sciatica that can be practiced to eventually get rid of this persistent form of pain. These may include:

  • Heat and/or ice therapy
  • A course of anti-inflammatory medication
  • Frequent leg stretches to tolerance
  • Yoga
  • Posture exercises
  • Hip stretching

A combination of these activities, in addition to remaining active in your daily lifestyle, can vastly improve sciatic pain and prevent it from recurring. Before attempting any exercise or treatment plan, consult a physician who can verify that you are physically capable of carrying out exercise routines without risking any physical harm.