Sciatica is a term that refers to pain along the sciatic nerve, which is the largest nerve in the human body. It stretches from the lower back through the buttocks and hips and to the legs. In most cases, sciatic nerve pain affects only one side of the body.
Sciatica usually occurs when a part of the sciatic nerve is compressed by spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spine), bone spur, or herniated disc. This manifests with numbness and pain in the leg.
Sciatic pain can be quite severe but in most cases, it goes away on its own after a few weeks. However, if you’re experiencing persistent pain accompanied by bladder or bowel changes, or weakness in the affected leg, you might need surgical intervention.
Common Symptoms of Sciatica
If you’re suffering from pain, which starts in your lower back and branches through your buttocks and in the back of your leg, you might be suffering from sciatica.
The pain can range from mild to severe. It usually gets worse after longer periods of sitting or after sneezing or coughing.
Muscle weakness, tingling, or numbness in the foot and/or the entire leg can accompany sciatic pain.
When should you see a doctor?
Mild sciatic pain usually goes away after a few weeks. However, if the pain persists and nothing manages to alleviate the symptoms, you should see a doctor.
Make sure to see a doctor right away in these cases:
- You find it difficult to control your bladder or bowels.
- The pain results from a severe injury.
- You feel a sudden, sharp pain in your lower back or leg or muscle weakness/numbness in your leg.
Risk factors for Sciatica
- Certain jobs: If you have an occupation that involves twisting your back, driving a vehicle for longer periods of time, or carrying heavy loads, you are at a higher risk of developing sciatica.
- Age: Some changes in the spine develop as we age and they can cause sciatica.
- Sedentary lifestyle: People who tend to sit for longer periods of time are very likely to suffer from sciatica.
- Excess body weight: Obesity can increase the stress on your spine and speed up changes in the spine that cause sciatica.
- Diabetes: This disease affects how the body uses blood sugar and can increase the risk of nerve damage.
As mentioned before, sciatic pain usually goes away and most people manage to recover without any treatment. However, in some cases, sciatica can permanently damage the nerves.
If you feel any of the following symptoms, make sure to visit your doctor right away:
- Weakness or loss of feeling in the leg
- Loss of bladder or bowel function.
Can Sciatica be prevented?
Sciatica can’t always be prevented and it very often recurs. However, maintaining proper posture while sitting and regular exercises can strengthen your back and decrease your chances of developing sciatica.
How is Sciatica diagnosed?
In order to determine whether you’re suffering from sciatica, your doctor will perform a physical exam during which he will check your reflexes and muscle strength. He will probably ask you to do some activities (lift your legs, walk on your heels or toes, etc.). If you have sciatica, the pain will worsen while performing these activities.
If the pain is severe or persistent, your doctor may also order an imaging test like an X-Ray, CT scan, MRI, or EMG (electromyography).
If the pain persists or gets worse, your doctor may suggest some of the following treatment options:
The following types of medications are usually prescribed for sciatica:
- Muscle relaxants
- Anti-seizure medications
- Tricyclic antidepressants
If the pain is severe, your doctor might prescribe a corticosteroid injection to suppress the inflammation around the affected nerve and help alleviate the pain.
After the pain improves, your doctor might recommend physical therapy in order to prevent future injuries. Physical therapy usually includes movements to strengthen the back muscles, improve your posture and flexibility.
Surgery is recommended only in cases where sciatica causes bladder or bowel control, weakness in the leg, or when the pain gets worse or doesn’t improve with other treatments. Surgeons can remove the herniated disk or bone spur that’s compressing the sciatic nerve.