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Sciatica - Symptoms, Causes, Risk Factors, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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Sciatica - Symptoms, Causes, Risk Factors, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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Sciatica is described as pain caused due to problem with the sciatic nerve that runs from the back to the legs. Read this article for more information about it.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Desai Vijaybhai Ramjibhai

Published At January 3, 2020
Reviewed AtApril 26, 2023

What Is Sciatica?

The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the human body that branches from the lower back and runs through the hips and buttocks down to each leg. The pain that results from any irritation of this nerve is termed sciatica. Usually, sciatica only affects one side of the body. However, it is commonly associated with a bone spur on the spine, herniated disk, or spinal stenosis (the narrowing of the spine), as it compresses the nerve. This compression results in symptoms in the affected leg, such as inflammation, pain, and numbness.

Sciatica, as such, is not a disease, but it is a symptom that results from any problem in the associated nerve. Sciatica should not be confused with lower back pain because it causes pain in the legs and hips. The reason for such widespread symptoms is that the sciatic nerve is the widest and longest nerve in the body. The nerve carries sensation to the skin in the lower leg and controls the action of many muscles in this region.

The pain associated with this condition is severe, but in most cases, the pain subsides in a few weeks with conservative treatment options. But in patients who have leg weakness or bowel changes, surgery might be needed.

What Are the Signs of Sciatica?

The pain associated with sciatica is very distinct. The signs of sciatica include:

  • Pain that radiates from the lower back, buttock area, and legs.

  • Pain gets worse with movement.

  • Pins and needles sensation in the toes and feet.

  • Legs or feet numbness or weakness.

  • Loss of sensation and movement in the leg (in severe cases).

  • Urinary and bowel incontinence (the inability to control urine and stool passage).

What Causes Sciatica?

Any injury to the spine that compresses or affects the sciatica nerve or sciatica nerve tumor can result in this pain. The common causes include:

  1. Herniated Disk - The spinal bones or vertebrae are separated by cartilage, which is filled with a thick jelly-like material and has a hard covering. When this hard covering rips and the soft inner part protrudes, it is called a herniated disk. This herniation can compress the sciatica nerve.

  2. Spinal Stenosis - Spinal stenosis is the abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal. As the spinal canal narrows, it puts pressure on the nerve roots that start from the spinal cord.

  3. Piriformis Syndrome - This rare condition results in involuntary contraction of the piriformis muscle, which is the muscle that connects the spine to the bones in the thigh. This contraction compresses the sciatic nerve, which worsens when sitting for a long time or if a person falls.

  4. Spondylolisthesis - This occurs when one of the lower spinal bones slips into a lower bone, which pinches the sciatic nerve.

  5. Osteoarthritis - In this condition, bone spurs can form in aging patients on the spine, which compress the lower back nerves.

What Are the Risk Factors for Sciatica?

The factors that increase the risk of developing sciatica are:

  • Aging.

  • Some actions like lifting heavy weights and sitting for a long period.

  • Diabetes can result in diabetic neuropathy.

  • Smoking.

  • Obesity.

When to Consult a Doctor for Sciatica?

Mild cases of sciatica resolve on their own in a few days. Patients should consult a doctor to know things they can do at home to relieve pain. But in the following situations, consult a doctor immediately:

  • Sudden and severe lower back and leg pain.

  • If the pain resulted from a road traffic accident or severe injury.

  • Weakness or numbness in the muscles of the legs.

  • If a person cannot control the bladder or bowels, these are symptoms of cauda equina syndrome.

How Is Sciatica Diagnosed?

If a patient has lower back pain that radiates to the legs and hips, the doctor can prescribe the following tests:

  1. Checking Muscle Strength and Reflexes - The patient might be told to walk on heels, lift their legs while lying down, and get up from a squatting position.

  2. Imaging Tests - To check for herniated disks, bone spurs, or other problems that can cause this pain. The tests that might be done are an X-ray of the spine, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), and CT (computed tomography) scan.

  3. Electromyography (EMG) - It is used to diagnose conditions like a herniated disk or spinal stenosis. The test measures the responses of the muscles and the electrical impulses generated by the nerves.

How Is Sciatica Treated?

Sciatica is treated with home remedies and by keeping oneself active. However, bed rest and inactivity often aggravate this condition.

I. Home Remedies:

  • Hot Packs - Hot packs or heating pads can be used after a couple of days. Apply them on the affected area two to three times a day.

  • Cold Compressions - Apply ice packs or a packet of frozen goods for 20 minutes to the affected area. This can be repeated several times, but only during the initial days of pain.

  • Hot and Cold Compress - Alternate hot and cold packs can also be used.

  • Stretching - A physiotherapist should be consulted to guide the patient on the proper way to stretch the lower back. Moreover, a person can also try doing yoga.

  • Exercise - Stay active and exercise. During exercise, the body releases endorphins, which act as natural painkillers when you exercise. Therefore, swimming, cycling, and other low-impact exercises are ideal.

  • Painkillers - Over-the-counter painkillers, such as Aspirin and Ibuprofen, help reduce pain and swelling. Always consult a doctor before taking any medication.

  • Physical Therapy - Exercises in physical therapy can help to improve posture and strengthen the back muscles.

II. Medications:

If needed, the doctor will prescribe medications like muscle relaxants, narcotic painkillers, and antidepressants.

  • Steroid Injection - A corticosteroid is injected into the epidural space (filled with fluid surrounding the spinal cord), which helps relieve the pain.

III. Surgery:

Surgery might be needed for severe cases with extreme pain and bowel or bladder incontinence. The types of surgeries include:

  • Discectomy - In this procedure, a part of the disk compressing the nerve is removed.

  • Microdiscectomy - The disk is removed using a microscope through a small cut.

Alternative Treatment Options:

  • Acupuncture - It is a painless procedure where an acupuncturist affects the flow of energy in the body by inserting needles at critical points.

  • Chiropractic Treatment - A chiropractor manipulates the spine to achieve maximum spinal mobility.

  • Hypnosis - Hypnosis by a trained professional puts the patient in a relaxed and focused state of mind, and messages related to pain relief are given.

  • Massage - A massage can help relieve pressure and pain.

What Are the Preventive Measures for Sciatica?

A person can prevent sciatica by protecting their back or spine. Some of the following preventive measures can be taken to accomplish this are:

  • Perform exercise that strengthens the muscles in the back.

  • Maintain good posture by sitting in a chair with a good back and armrest.

  • Maintain a healthy weight and be more physically active.

Conclusion:

Sciatica is a rare condition; usually, the pain caused by it goes away on its own. Most cases get treated by self-care treatments and do not require surgery. However, if the pain persists with time, the patient should seek medical assistance.

Frequently Asked Questions

1.

What Are Some of the Common Treatment Methods for Sciatica?

Sciatica is characterized by pain that originates from irritation or injury to the sciatic nerve. It can be treated by self-care measures that are listed below:
- Medications like corticosteroids, antiseizure drugs, opioids, and antidepressants.
- Physiotherapy.
- Steroid injections.
- Surgery.

2.

Which Doctor Treats Sciatica?

As sciatica refers to nerve pain, it must be treated by a neurologist. This is because a neurologist has a thorough understanding of the nervous system. In addition, a neurologist can provide prompt diagnosis and treatment plans to overcome sciatica and other neurological disorders.

3.

Can Sciatica Cause Severe Problems?

Sciatica is commonly associated with a herniated disk or pressure exerted on the nerves due to bone overgrowth. The patient can have severe pain in sciatica, but the problem usually resolves within a few weeks. Surgery is only required for people with weakness in the legs or changes in bowel and bladder habits.

4.

Does Sciatica Last for Prolonged Periods?

The duration of sciatica depends on its severity.  For example, people with acute sciatica get relieved of the symptoms within one to two weeks. However, the ones diagnosed with chronic sciatica tend to experience the symptoms for years.

5.

Will a Patient Recover From Sciatica?

Sciatica is not a serious condition unless it is treated at the right time. People tend to recover completely from it. However, pain, muscle weakness, and foot drop are some of the most common complications of sciatica. The patient usually recovers completely in four to six weeks.

6.

Does Walking Help Overcome Sciatica?

Walking is beneficial to patients with sciatica because it stimulates the release of substances that help overcome pain. In addition, it helps reduce inflammation. However, one needs to maintain a correct walking posture because incorrect posture can aggravate sciatica symptoms.

7.

Does Staying Hydrated Help Overcome Sciatica?

Water plays an important role in muscle pain associated with sciatica or other disorders. It prevents lactic acid accumulation around the muscles, which can otherwise cause nerve pain and inflammation.

8.

Can a Person With Sciatica Do Bed Rest?

Studies report that people who stay active and avoid resting in bed for prolonged periods tend to recover earlier than those who prefer bed rest. This is because bed rest can cause pain flare-ups and is detrimental to pain in the lower back.

9.

Which Activities Worsen Sciatica?

People with sciatica must avoid jumping, twisting, squatting, and other strenuous physical activities. In addition, one must avoid bending forward or performing exercises requiring a person to simultaneously sit or lift his legs from the ground.

10.

Will Sciatica Be Visible on X-Rays?

The doctor usually recommends conventional X-rays, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), or CT (computed tomography) scans for sciatica associated with bone spurs or herniated discs. X-rays are the diagnostic method of choice because they help detect additional abnormalities.

11.

Can Sciatica Cause Paralysis?

Pain and burning sensation in the legs is one of the most typical symptoms of sciatica. However, sometimes the pain is so severe and intense that the patient can have paralysis, numbness, or muscle weakness. It usually occurs due to the compression of nerves between the bone and disc.

12.

Can Stress Trigger Sciatica?

Stress is a common problem nowadays, which can be due to several factors. People who remain under stress have lasting effects on their mental health. Studies report that stress is one of the most common trigger factors for sciatica and pain in the lower back or spine.
Dr. Desai Vijaybhai Ramjibhai
Dr. Desai Vijaybhai Ramjibhai

General Medicine

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sciaticastretching exercisesagingpiriformis syndromedisc herniation
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