Sciatica is the medical name given to any sort of pain that is caused by irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve, which is the largest nerve in the body and begins from nerve roots in the lumbar spinal cord in the low back and extends through the buttock area to send nerve endings down the lower limb. Therefore, the pain is typically felt from the low back (lumbar area) and radiating down below the knee. Typically, sciatica affects only one side of the body.
Pain that radiates from the lower spine to the buttock and down the back of the leg is the hallmark of sciatica. A person may feel the discomfort almost anywhere along the nerve pathway, but it is especially likely to follow a path from the low back to the buttock and the back of the thigh and calf. The pain can vary widely, from a mild ache to a sharp, burning sensation or excruciating discomfort. Sometimes it may feel like a jolt or electric shock. It may be worse when coughing or sneezing. A prolonged sitting position can also aggravate the symptoms. Some people also experience numbness, tingling or muscle weakness in the affected leg or foot. You may have pain in one part of the leg and numbness in another.
Sciatica most commonly occurs when a herniated disk or a bone spur on the spine directly compresses a part of the nerve. Aside from a pinched nerve from a disc, other causes of sciatica include irritation of the nerve from adjacent bone, muscle, internal bleeding, infections in or around the lumbar spine, injury, and other causes. Sometimes sciatica can occur because of irritation of the sciatic nerve during pregnancy. More rarely, the nerve can be compressed by a tumor or damaged by a disease such as diabetes. This compression causes inflammation, pain and often some numbness in the affected leg.
Risk factors for sciatica include:
- Age-related changes in the spine, such as herniated disks and bone spurs;
- A job that requires a person to twist the back, carry heavy loads or drive a motor vehicle for longer periods;
- Prolonged sitting;
Although most people recover fully from sciatica without any specific treatment, sciatica can potentially cause permanent nerve damage. Seek immediate medical attention if a person experiences:
- Loss of feeling in the affected leg;
- Weakness in the affected leg;
- Loss of bowel or bladder function
The types of drugs that might be prescribed for sciatica pain include:
- Medications (such as: anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxants, narcotics, tricyclic antidepressants, anti-seizure medications);
- Physical therapy;
- Steroid injections;
It is not always possible to prevent sciatica, but there are several things a person can do in order to prevent back injuries that could lead to sciatica, such as a herniated or 'slipped' disc. The following suggestions can play a key role in protecting the back:
- Regular exercises;
- Maintaining proper posture when sitting;
- Use of good body mechanics.