Sciatica is a symptom of leg pain, including weakness, tingling, and numbness. These sensations begin in your lower back and travel through your buttocks and down the large sciatic nerve in the back of your leg- which can have an effect on your knee, causing pain.
While many people believe that sciatica is a condition in and of itself, the truth is, it is not a diagnosis itself, but just a symptom of an underlying condition such as spinal stenosis, lumbar herniated disc, or degenerative disc disease.
Nerve Pain and Sciatica
In most cases, this symptom of a back problem is characterized by one or more of the following symptoms:
- Constant pain in one leg or on one side of your buttocks
- Leg pain that can be described as searing, burning, or tingling- instead of a dull ache
- Pain that is made worse by sitting for a long period of time
- Sharp pain that makes it difficult to walk or stand
- Difficulty moving the leg/foot
- Weakness or numbness in legs/feet
The pain of sciatica can be infrequent and a minor irritation to an incapacitating and constant one. Specific symptoms of sciatica can differ in severity and location depending upon the condition that is causing your sciatica.
While it is true that the symptoms of sciatica can be extremely painful and even possibly debilitating, it is very rare that permanent nerve or tissue damage will occur.
Sciatica and the Sciatic Nerve
Symptoms of sciatica manifest when the large sciatic nerve is compressed in the lumbar spine or becomes irritated for some reason.
Your sciatic nerve is the biggest single nerve in your body and is made up of individual roots of nerves that branch out from your spine in your lower back and then come together to form your sciatic nerve.
Following are a few important points that you should know about the sciatic nerve:
- Your sciatic nerve begins in your lower back at the lumbar segment #3, referred to as L3.
- At each level of your lower spine, a nerve root comes out from inside of your spine, and each of these comes together to create what we know as the large sciatic nerve.
- Once formed from the combination of all the other nerves, your sciatic nerve runs from your lower back, through your buttocks, and then down the back of each one of your legs.
- Then, once in your legs, portions of this large nerve branch out to various parts of your leg: calves, thighs, toes, and feet.
The specific symptoms of sciatica- numbness, leg pain, weakness, and even symptoms that radiate into your foot- are dependent upon what portion of the sciatic nerve is irritated or pinched.
For example, if it is pinched or irritated along lumbar segment #5, or L5, you may notice that you have weakness in extending your big toe and possibly your ankle.
The Course of Sciatic Pain
Research has shown that the chances of developing sciatica increase around middle age. It rarely occurs in anyone under the age of 20 and often peaks somewhere around age 50, declining after that.
In most cases, it is something that develops over time instead of being caused by a particular injury or event.
Most people who have sciatica pain will see an improvement within a few weeks to a few months and are able to obtain relief with non-surgical treatments.
However, for some others, leg/knee pain due to a pinched nerve can be extremely debilitating and severe.
There are a few of the symptoms related to sciatica that may require immediate medical intervention- including surgery.
These symptoms include dysfunction of the bowels and/or bladder, leg weakness, and other progressive neurological symptoms.
Since sciatica is due to an underlying medical condition- such as a herniated disc or spinal stenosis, instead of a condition of its own, treatment is most often more focused on treating these underlying causes.
In most cases, treatment is primarily self-care, non-surgical techniques. On the other hand, if you do have severe pain that does not improve over time or some severe dysfunction related to your sciatica, you may want to consider surgery as an option.
Treatments for Sciatica
If you experience ongoing or severe sciatica flare-ups, you may need to treat your condition so that it does not progress over time.
For most individuals suffering from sciatica, non-surgical and/or self-care techniques along with adequate exercise will do wonders for treating the pain.
On the other hand, some individuals find that these techniques do not work and their pain does not improve on its own over time.
Therefore, these individuals require a more structured approach to their treatment- possibly including surgery to minimize pain and dysfunction in the future.
The primary goals of the non-surgical treatments for sciatica are to relieve neurological symptoms and pain related to the nerve root being compressed.
Of course, there is a wide range of options that are available for treating sciatica. You can use one- or a combination of- the following treatments when you experience a sciatica flare-up.
Heat and Ice
When you are experiencing an acute case of sciatica pain, heat packs along with ice packs are available to help to relieve the leg pain associated with this condition, especially in the beginning.
You should apply ice or heat for about 20 minutes at a time and then repeat this process every two hours. In most cases, people choose to use the ice first- but there are some that find they get greater relief with heat.
You should alternate the two- use heat first and ice second, or vice-versa. The best way to apply the ice is by placing a towel or cloth between the ice pack and your skin. This will help you avoid getting an ice burn.
There are lots of OTC and prescription medications that are effective for relieving or reducing the pain associated with sciatica.
The best options are the NSAIDs, such as naproxen or ibuprofen, and even oral steroids to reduce the inflammation associated with sciatica.
There are lots of other treatments for sciatica, but these are the two most common. If you do not obtain relief from self-care treatments, please contact your physician so that you can gain medical treatment if required.