Sciatica refers to back pain caused by a problem with your sciatic nerve. This is a large nerve that runs from the lower back down the back of each leg. When something injures or puts pressure on the sciatic nerve, it can cause pain in the lower back. This pain can spread to your hip, buttocks, and leg. The good news is that up to 90% of people recover without surgery.
The most common symptom is lower back pain that extends through the hip and buttock and down one leg. The pain usually affects only one leg and may get worse when you sit, cough, or sneeze. The leg may also feel numb, weak, or tingly at times. The symptoms of sciatica tend to appear suddenly and can last for days or weeks.
Sciatica: How Do You It’s A Different Back Pain?
Up to 85% of Americans experience some type of back pain during their lives. But this doesn’t always involve the sciatic nerve. In many cases, back pain is the result of overextending or straining the muscles in the lower back. What most often sets sciatica apart is the way the pain radiates down the leg and into the foot. It may feel like a bad leg cramp that lasts for days.
The most common cause is a herniated disk. Disks act like cushions between the vertebrae of your spine. These disks get weaker as you age and become more vulnerable to injury. Sometimes the gel-like center of a disk pushes through its outer lining and presses on the roots of the sciatic nerve. About 1 in 50 people will get a herniated disk at some point in life. Up to a quarter of them will have symptoms that last more than 6 weeks.
Sciatica: Spinal Stenosis
Natural wear and tear of the vertebrae can lead to a narrowing of the spinal canal. This narrowing, called spinal stenosis, may put pressure on the roots of the sciatic nerve. Spinal stenosis is more common in seniors over age 60.
Sciatica: Spinal Tumors
In rare cases, sciatica may result from tumors growing inside or along the spinal cord or sciatic nerve. As a tumor grows, it can put pressure on the nerves that branch off from the spinal cord.
Sciatica: Piriformis Syndrome
The piriformis is a muscle found deep inside the buttocks. It connects the lower spine to the upper thigh bone and runs directly over the sciatic nerve. If this muscle goes into spasm, it can put pressure on the sciatic nerve, triggering symptoms of sciatica. Piriformis syndrome is more common in women.
Sacroiliitis is an inflammation of one or both of the sacroiliac joints, the spot where the lower spine connects to the pelvis. Sacroiliitis can cause pain in the buttocks, lower back, and may even extend down one or both legs. The pain can worsen with prolonged standing or climbing stairs. Sacroiliitis can be caused by arthritis, injury, or infection.
Sciatica: Injuries, Infections
Other causes include muscle inflammation, infection, or injury, such as a fracture. Senior citizens are more prone to injuries such as falls. In general, any condition that irritates or compresses the sciatic nerve can trigger symptoms.
Sciatica: Ice and Heat Treatments
A heating pad or ice pack may be especially helpful. Apply the heat or ice for about 20 minutes every two hours. Experiment to see which provides more relief, or try alternating between the two.
Over-the-counter pain relievers can provide short-term relief from. Acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are good options. Steroid injections can further reduce inflammation.
Motion reduces inflammation and pain. Gentle stretching of the hamstring and lower back, works. Practicing yoga can help stabilize the affected area and strengthen your core. Depending on your medical condition, taking short walks will help.
In severe cases, injecting steroids into the spine area to reduce inflammation will help. It delivers the medication directly to the area around the sciatic nerve.
If the cause is due to a herniated disk, and it’s still causing severe pain after four to six weeks, surgery may be an option. The surgeon will remove a portion of the herniated disk to relieve the pressure on the sciatic nerve. About 90% of patients get relief from this type of surgery.
After back surgery, physical therapy to help strengthen the muscles in the back is recommended. Once recovery is complete, there’s an excellent chance normal activities can be resumed.
Sciatica: Other Therapies
Acupuncture, massage, yoga, and chiropractic adjustments can relieve typical lower back pain. But more research is needed to determine whether these therapies are helpful, long-term.
If you’ve had this condition once before, there’s a chance it will return. Here are steps you can take to reduce the odds:
- Exercise regularly.
- Maintain good posture.
- Bend at the knees to lift heavy objects.
Be proactive, exercise to keep your back in shape.