What Is Sciatica: Causes, Symptoms And How To Treat

Sciatica can start as a mild symptom and get worse, or it can come up suddenly and affect your routine. If treated on time, you can recover from the condition without any need for surgery.

Sciatica is not a condition or disease, but a symptom that points to some other type of health issue. It refers to the pain that starts in the sciatic nerve, the widest and longest nerve in the entire body which is located at the back of the leg. When there is any injury or pressure on the sciatic nerve, you feel the pain that is known as sciatica. While the pain will start around your lower back, it soon spreads to other areas such as the leg, hips and lower waist.

Sciatica can be of two types:

  • Acute Sciatica Or Short Term Sciatica: This type of sciatica will usually get better on its own and may not require any medical attention. In most cases, you can get relief from acute sciatica by using hot and cold compress, some forms of exercise as well as certain over the counter (OTC) pain killers. It will usually get better within 6 to 8 weeks.
  • Chronic Sciatica Or Long Term Sciatica: This type of sciatica will require some form of medical intervention or physiotherapy. In most cases, you can get relief from chronic sciatica by using a mix of various healing techniques such as medication, some form of exercise, heat compress and some other techniques. It will usually last for about 8 or more weeks.

It is very difficult to pinpoint a specific cause for sciatica, as anything that puts pressure on the sciatic nerve can lead to the pain.

One of the main reasons for sciatica is pressure on the lower spine which compresses the nerve root in the area. Here are some of the most common causes that could lead to sciatica:

  • A herniated disk, in which case the disk moves out of its position temporarily and causes pressure build-up on the sciatic nerve.
  • Any form of injury in the spine or one that directly affects the spine.
  • Any form of infection in the spine.
  • Any form of tumour in the spine that could put pressure on the sciatic nerve.
  • Lumbar spinal stenosis, a condition in which the spinal cord becomes narrow around the lower back area and puts pressure on the sciatic nerve.
  • Spondylolisthesis, a condition in which the disc slips out of its position and puts pressure on the sciatic nerve.
  • Cauda equina syndrome, a rare condition in which the nerves located in the lower part of the spinal cord are affected. It is a very serious condition that could cause paralysis if not treated immediately.
  • You are in your 30s or 40s, as the disks in the spinal area will start deteriorating around this age.
  • You regularly have to lift heavy weights and for a longer duration.
  • You spend a lot of time sitting and do not have an active lifestyle.
  • A sudden and shooting pain that starts around your lower back, reaches to your hips, and goes till the back of your leg.
  • Tingling sensation in your toes and feet.
  • Numb feeling in one part of the leg and pain in another part.

The doctor will examine your leg and suggest a few exercises, to see how the pain affects you while performing the same. In case the pain lasts for more than 4 to 8 weeks, you may have to go for an X-ray or MRI scan to find out what is putting pressure on the nerve.

Treatment will be based on the type of sciatica you have:

  • Acute Sciatica – Your doctor will first put you on regular painkillers and some light exercise. Hot and cold compress can also give relief.
  • Chronic Sciatica – Your doctor will prescribe some painkillers along with physiotherapy sessions, to improve muscle strength and flexibility. In addition, your doctor may also suggest chiropractic session as well as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help you manage the pain better.

In case the pain does not get better with a combination of the above methods, the doctor may suggest surgery. Based on your condition, it will either be:

  • A lumbar laminectomy procedure, in which the spinal cord is widened to reduce any type of pressure on the nerves. OR
  • A discectomy procedure, in which the herniated desk is either partially or fully removed.

Regularly exercising and maintaining the right posture can help prevent sciatica. You may get in touch with our physiotherapist to know more.

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