Sciatica refers to pain or discomfort associated with the sciatic nerve. This nerve runs from the lower part of the spinal cord, down the back of the leg, to the foot. Injury to or pressure on the sciatic nerve can cause the characteristic pain of sciatica: a sharp or burning pain that radiates from the lower back or hip, possibly following the path of the sciatic nerve to the foot.
Causes and symptoms
Individuals with sciatica may experience some lower back pain, but the most common symptom is pain that radiates through one buttock and down the back of that leg. The most identified cause of the pain is compression or pressure on the sciatic nerve. The extent of the pain varies between individuals. Some people describe pain that centers in the area of the hip, and others perceive discomfort all the way to the foot. The quality of the pain also varies; it may be described as tingling, burning, prickly, aching, or stabbing.
Onset of sciatica can be sudden, but it can also develop gradually. The pain may be intermittent or continuous, and certain activities, such as bending, coughing, sneezing, or sitting, may make the pain worse.
Before treating sciatic pain, as much information as possible is collected. The individual is asked to recount the location and nature of the pain, how long it has continued, and any accidents or unusual activities prior to its onset. This information provides clues that may point to back strain or injury to a specific location. Back pain from disk disease, piriformis syndrome, and back strain must be differentiated from more serious conditions such as cancer or infection. Lumbar stenosis, an overgrowth of the covering layers of the vertebrae that narrows the spinal canal, must also be considered. The possibility that a difference in leg lengths is causing the pain should be evaluated.
Often, a straight-leg-raising test is done, in which the person lies face upward and the health-care provider raises the affected leg to various heights. This test pinpoints the location of the pain and may reveal whether it is caused by a disk problem. Other tests, such as having the individual rotate the hip joint, assess the hip muscles. Any pain caused by these movements may provide information about involvement of the piriformis muscle, and piriformis weakness is tested with additional leg-strength maneuvers.
Initial treatment for sciatica focuses on pain relief. Physical therapy is often introduced into the treatment regime. Modalities such as heat, electrical stimulation, ultrasound, or low level laser, manual therapy, and exercises that focus on the lower back, buttock, and hamstring muscles are suggested. The exercises also include finding comfortable, pain-reducing positions.
With less pain and the success of early therapy, the individual is encouraged to follow a long-term program to maintain a healthy back and prevent re-injury. A physical therapist may suggest exercises and regular activity, such as water exercise or walking. Patients are instructed in proper body mechanics to minimize symptoms during light lifting or other activities.
Chiropractic treatments and massage are also recommended form of treatments. Chiropractic or may offer possible solutions for relieving pressure on the sciatic nerve and the accompanying pain.
Most cases of sciatica are treatable with pain medication and physical therapy. After 4-6 weeks of treatment, an individual should be able to resume normal activities.