Sciatica

Sciatica at a glance

  • Sciatica is the result of sciatic nerve roots being compressed or pinched as they exit the spinal cord in the lower back.
  • Disc herniation is the most common cause of sciatica. People often use the two terms interchangeably.
  • Sciatica can cause severe pain, numbness and weakness in a leg and/or foot, as well as nagging lower back pain.
  • Treatment usually starts with physical therapy and pain management methods.

What is sciatica?

Sciatica is a condition of the sciatic nerve roots, the longest nerves in the body, such as being pinched or compressed as they exit the spinal cord. It is most often associated with pain.

Symptoms of sciatica

Sciatica typically causes pain in the lower back or buttocks that continues down the leg and often to the foot. Pain may also be accompanied by weakness, tingling or numbness in the leg.  Pain severeness can vary widely, from a mild ache to sharp or excruciating pain.

Typically, sciatica affects only one side of a person’s body.

Symptoms vary, depending on which of the sciatic nerve roots are compressed. Sitting or standing for a long time can worsen the symptoms, as can bending the spine in certain ways.

Causes of sciatica

Sciatica is usually the result of a herniated or ruptured disc pressing against the sciatic nerve, a large nerve group leading out of the foraminal canals between each vertebra of the spine.

As one of four spinal nerves exiting the spine, the sciatic nerve runs behind the buttocks and down the back of the thigh. At the knee down, the nerve splits into several other branches.

In addition to disc herniation, another cause of sciatica is a muscular compression of the sciatic nerve in the buttocks. The most common type of this condition is called piriformis muscle syndrome, named for the buttocks muscle overlying the nerve.

Sciatica may also be a symptom of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal, as well as bone spurs or a nerve pinched by an injury.

Treatments for sciatica

In order to diagnose sciatica, a physical exam is usually required, often along with X-rays and/or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test.

Some sciatica sufferers find their pain improves over time with little or no treatment. Many gain immediate relief from lying down or doing exercises that ease pressure on the sciatic nerve.

As a first course of treatment, many doctors prefer non-surgical alternatives such as physical therapy and pain medication. Spine specialists also emphasize a daily regimen that reduces sitting and increases walking. Be sure to talk to your pharmacist before purchasing anti-inflammatories as these medications may be contraindicated as they may interact with other medications and medical conditions.

In other cases, doctors may recommend pain management therapy for a herniated disc, in which injections help ease the nerve swelling and pain around the disc.

In more extreme cases, various types of spinal surgery can reduce or eliminate the disc pressure.

If you are experiencing sciatica pain and symptoms, contact us to request an appointment with our orthopedic spine specialists to learn which treatment options are best for you.