According to Harvard Health, around 40% of people will experience sciatica in their lifetime, and the chance of experiencing sciatic nerve pain increases as you age.
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. The condition occurs when you have a protruding (herniated) disc in your spinal column that is pressing on the nerve roots in the lumbar spine.
What is sciatica nerve pain?
Sciatic nerve pain starts in the 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.
What causes sciatica?
Sciatica is mostly commonly caused by a herniated disc, which can be a result of simple wear and tear due to aging. It is more common between the ages of 30 and 50 years old or in pregnant women, since they have so much pressure on their lower back.
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.
Some common sciatica symptoms include:
- 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 spine physician will ask you for a complete medical history, ask you to describe your symptoms and conduct a physical examination. An X-ray, or MRI is usually necessary to confirm the diagnosis.
What is the most effective pain relief for sciatica?
In most cases, the most effective pain relief for sciatica is time and rest. 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
Sciatica Surgical Treatment
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.
How to Help Sciatica Pain
Motion, exercise and stretching are good ways to strengthen your back and provide you with sciatica relief. Most times, patients are able to resume normal lifestyle activities fairly quickly.
There are stretches you can perform to help release tension caused by sciatic nerve pain. These exercises can help stretch the tiny piriformis muscles, which sometimes become inflamed and press against your sciatic nerve.
- Lay flat on the ground with your legs extended
- Bring your right leg up to your chest
- Lift your left leg to a 90-degree angle
- Place your right ankle on top of the left knee as the right knee falls to the side
- Repeat other side
- Sit on the floor with legs long and straight
- Bend your right leg, put your right ankle on top of the left knee
- Lean forward and allow your upper body to reach towards your thigh
- Repeat other side
- Knee to opposite shoulder
- Lie on your back with your legs extended
- Bend your right leg and clasp your hands around the knee
- Gently pull your leg across body towards your left shoulder
- Repeat other side
Learn more about treatment options for neck and back pain at OrthoIndy.
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