Sciatica refers to pain that radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve — which branches from your lower back through your hips and buttocks and down each leg. Typically, sciatica affects only one side of your body.
Sciatica most commonly occurs when a herniated disk or a bone spur on the spine compresses part of the nerve. This causes inflammation, pain and often some numbness in the affected leg.
Although the pain associated with sciatica can be severe, most cases resolve with just conservative treatments in a few weeks. People who continue to have severe sciatica after six weeks of treatment might be helped by surgery to relieve the pressure on the nerve.
The sciatic nerves branches from your lower back through your hips and buttocks and down each leg. ...
Pain that radiates from your lower (lumbar) spine to your buttock and down the back of your leg is the hallmark of sciatica. You may feel the discomfort almost anywhere along the nerve pathway, but it's especially likely to follow a path from your low back to your buttock and the back of your thigh and calf.
The pain can vary widely, from a mild ache to a sharp, burning sensation or excruciating discomfort. Sometimes it may feel like a jolt or electric shock. It may be worse when you cough or sneeze, and prolonged sitting can aggravate symptoms. Usually only one side of your body is affected.
Some people also experience numbness, tingling or muscle weakness in the affected leg or foot. You may have pain in one part of your leg and numbness in another.
When to see a doctor
Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve becomes pinched, usually by a herniated disk in your spine or by an overgrowth of bone (bone spur) on your vertebrae. More rarely, the nerve can be compressed by a tumor or damaged by a disease such as diabetes.
The rubbery disks that lie between the vertebrae in your spine consist of a soft center (nucleus) surrounded by a tougher exterior (annulus). A herniated disk occurs when a portion of the nucleus ...
Bone spurs on spine
As your spine ages, it's more likely to experience bone spurs or herniated disks. These problems can reduce the amount of space available for your spinal cord and the nerves that branch off it. ...
Risk factors for sciatica include:
Although most people recover fully from sciatica, often without any specific treatment, sciatica can potentially cause permanent nerve damage. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience:
Preparing for your appointment
Not everyone who has sciatica needs medical care. If your symptoms are severe or persist for more than a month, though, make an appointment with your primary doctor.
What you can do
For radiating low back pain, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask other questions that arise during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
During the physical exam, your doctor may check your muscle strength and reflexes. For example, you may be asked to walk on your toes or heels, rise from a squatting position and, while lying on your back, lift your legs one at a time straight in the air. Pain that results from sciatica will usually become worse during these activities.
Treatments and drugs
If your pain doesn't improve with self-care measures, your doctor may suggest some of the following treatments.
Lifestyle and home remedies
For most people, sciatica responds well to self-care measures. You'll heal more quickly if you continue with your usual activities but avoid what may have triggered the pain in the first place. Although resting for a day or so may provide some relief, prolonged inactivity will make your signs and symptoms worse.
Other self-care treatments that may be helpful include:
Alternative therapies commonly used for low back pain include:
It's not always possible to prevent sciatica, and the condition may recur. The following suggestions can play a key role in protecting your back:
Last Updated: 2012-09-19
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