Sciatica is a painful condition caused by the irritation of the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in our bodies. It begins in the lower back and extends through the buttocks down the back of each leg to the thighs and feet.
Sciatica can be acute (short term) lasting a few weeks or chronic (long term) persisting for more than 3 months. It is important to understand that most sciatica will resolve itself within a few weeks or months and rarely causes permanent nerve damage.
Anyone can develop sciatica at some point in their lives; however, there are certain risk factors that may predispose you to develop sciatica. These include the following:
- Increased age
- Poor physical fitness or inactive lifestyle
- Occupational risks
- Poor nutrition
- Medical conditions such as diabetes or cancer that has metastasised to the spine can cause sciatica
It is important to know sciatica is a symptom but not a medical diagnosis. Some medical conditions that can cause sciatica include herniated discs, lumbar spinal stenosis, piriformis syndrome, spondylolisthesis, degenerative disc disease, diabetes, tumours, and trauma.
The most common symptom of sciatica is pain. The pain can vary from mild to debilitating depending on the degree of pressure exerted on the sciatic nerve. Patients having sciatic nerve experience other symptoms such as:
- Pain in the buttock area and leg
- Sharp, intense, shooting pain down the leg
- Numbness, burning or tingling sensation in the leg or foot
- Weakness of the leg or foot
- Low back pain that radiates down to the buttock and leg
- Pain increases with coughing, sneezing or straining
- Pain increases with bending backward and with prolonged sitting or standing
Sciatica will be diagnosed by taking complete medical history, physical examination, assessment of neuromuscular function and diagnostic procedures such as X-ray, MRI, CT scan, CT scan with myelogram, electromyogram and nerve conduction tests.
Sciatica can be treated with conservative treatment approaches such as physical exercises, over the counter drugs, ice or hot packs, prescription medications, epidural steroid injections, massages and manual manipulation. In some cases, surgery may be recommended to treat the underlying condition causing sciatica and these conditions include herniated discs, lumbar spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis and degenerative disc disease.