While many people think that sciatica is a disease, the name actually refers to a set of symptoms: pain in the lower back and buttocks, and pain, numbness or weakness in the leg or foot. These symptoms usually occur on only one side of the body. People with sciatica may also feel a tingling, “pins and needles” sensation in the affected leg, and it may be unusually difficult to move the leg or foot. It can be incredibly painful and frustrating. When treating sciatica, it’s important to recognize that the pain is just a symptom and that there is a root cause somewhere in the spine.
The most common cause of sciatica is a herniated disc, often called a “slipped disc,” in the lower or lumbar spine. A herniated disc means that part of the fibrous outer ring of a spinal disc has torn, allowing the soft inner tissue of the spine to bulge out. This bulging and the surrounding swelling it causes can put pressure on the nerves, causing sciatica. Other causes include spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal (the space inside the spine where the actual spinal cord runs); pregnancy, due to pressure from the baby’s weight pushing on the sciatic nerve; injuries from car accidents or lifting heavy objects improperly; or even potentially muscle spasms in the low back or buttock caused by sitting on a wallet for prolonged periods of time.
So if you have sciatica, what should you do about it? For some people, the condition simply disappears after a few weeks or months, especially if a herniated disc is the cause. But doctors will commonly prescribe medications to help deal with the pain while the disc heals. This may be in the form of oral medications or epidural steroid injections. You may also need surgery to remove part of the disc. Physical therapy exercises may also be a good option to help strengthen the back muscles, increase flexibility, improve posture, and prevent future injury. Some people find heat, cold packs, and stretching to provide some relief from the pain.
Sciatica can be an excruciating problem, and it’s important to seek professional help if you’re experiencing symptoms so that the problem can be identified and treated as quickly as possible.