If you experience sudden pain in your lower back that also radiates to the back of your thigh and into your leg, you may have sciatica. Sciatica is a condition that occurs when you have a protruding (herniated) disk in your spinal column that is pressing on the nerve roots in the lumbar spine.
The spine is made up of 24 bones, called vertebrae, which are stacked on top of one another. These bones connect to protect the spinal cord. The seven small vertebrae that begin at the base of the skull and form the neck comprise the cervical spine.
Your spinal cord and nerves travel through the spinal canal carrying messages between your brain and muscles. The intervertebral discs between your vertebrae are flexible, flat and round discs and are about a half-inch thick. They act as shock absorbers when you walk or run and allow motion between the vertebrae.
Sciatica is mostly commonly caused by a herniated disc, which can be a result of simple wear and tear due to aging. Sciatica is more common between the ages of 30 and 50 years old. When a disc herniates, the gel-like center of the disc protrudes into or through the disc’s outer lining. This herniated disc will sometimes press directly on the nerve roots that become the sciatic nerve.
Most times symptoms from a herniated disc will not last longer than six weeks.
- Pain that feels similar to a bad leg cramp
- Pain that is sharp
- Pain that heightens when you move, sneeze or cough
- Weakness, numbness or a tingling sensation down your leg
To determine whether you have sciatica, your physician will ask you for a complete medical history, have you describe your symptoms and conduct a physical examination. An X-ray or MRI is usually necessary to confirm the diagnosis.
In most cases, sciatica will heal on its own with rest and time. If symptoms persist, nonsurgical treatment options are explored first and include:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, aspirin or muscle relaxants.
- Heat or cold on your painful muscles
- Physical therapy or at-home exercises and stretching
- Cortisone injections
If a patient does not feel relief after a long period of time and nonsurgical treatments do not relieve symptoms, surgery may be necessary. During surgery, which is called a laminotomy with discectomy, the herniated disc may be removed to stop it from pressing on your nerve. The surgery is performed under local, spinal or general anesthesia and is very successful at relieving pain.
Motion, exercise and stretching is important to strengthen your back. Most times, patients are able to resume normal lifestyle activities fairly quickly.