Most people have experienced lower back pain yet few understand what sciatica attack is. Sciatica is often misunderstood and many people believe that the condition is because of a pinched or herniated disc in their spinal column. However, sciatica can emerge from various causes including a traumatic injury to the spine.
The sciatic nerve runs from your lower spine through your hips and down each leg to your foot. The nerve supplies sensation and movement to your lower limbs.
Sciatica is a condition that causes pain, numbness or tingling in the lower back, buttocks, and legs. It usually affects one leg only, originating in the back or buttock and spreading to the thighs.
Herniated disc (slipped disc): A bulge forms on one side of an intervertebral disc between vertebrae in the spine. This can press against nearby nerves and cause them to compress or pinch them as they exit the spinal column through openings called neural foramina.
Spinal stenosis: Spinal stenosis occurs when bone spurs grow around an opening in the spinal column, causing it to narrow and press on nerves as they exit through neural foramina; this can cause compression or pinching of these nerves and result in pain, numbness, weakness or tingling sensations.
Spondylolisthesis: A condition in which one vertebra slips forward on another vertebra, resulting in a pinched or compressed nerve root.
Osteoarthritis: A type of arthritis that causes inflammation and pain throughout the joints, including in the spine.
Trauma injury to the lumbar spine or sciatic nerve: An accident or injury involving the lower back or sciatic nerve may cause pressure on these structures and result in sciatica symptoms.
Piriformis syndrome: This condition occurs when the piriformis muscle in the buttocks becomes tight or spasms, putting pressure on the sciatic nerve.
Cauda equina syndrome: Also called lumbar canal stenosis, this condition involves a narrowing of the spinal canal that compresses nerves in the lumbar region of the spine.
Symptoms of sciatica include pain in the front, back, and/or sides of the thigh and leg. These symptoms include:
- Shooting pain in the lower back, buttock, leg, or feet
- Pain that worsens as you move
- Loss of mobility
- Prickly sensation in your feet, legs, or toes
- Loss of bladder and bowel control caused by cauda equina
Treatment Options for Sciatica
In most cases, sciatica goes away on its own within a few months, but it can be painful in the meantime. The following self-care treatments may help ease your pain:
- Over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen can help manage your symptoms.
- Ice and/or hot packs applied to the affected area can help relieve inflammation and reduce muscle spasms.
- Gentle stretches that focus on the hip, back, and lower abdominals can help improve flexibility and reduce strain on your lower back muscles.
Muscle relaxants or antidepressants may be prescribed to relieve pain. Physical therapy can also help manage symptoms by stretching the muscles around the lower back and pelvis. Injections near the spine may provide relief as steroids and corticosteroids can decrease inflammation and reduce stress on damaged nerves.
If your pain does not improve with self-care and medications, you may benefit from an evaluation to determine if surgery will help you. A qualified spinal surgeon can help you determine if you will benefit from surgical intervention.
Sciatica isn’t entirely preventable, but taking the following steps can reduce your risk and protect your back:
Maintain a healthy weight: Maintaining a healthy weight reduces pressure on the spine. Your doctor can recommend developing a healthy diet and an exercise program to help you lose weight.
Exercise regularly: Staying active can increase the strength and flexibility of your muscles and ligaments. Low-impact physical activities such as walking, yoga, or pilates are least likely to hurt your back. Active stretching and light cardio can improve flexibility in your joints and make your back and abdomen stronger to support your spine.
Keep good posture: As you sit, stand, or sleep, you should maintain a stable posture. You may experience pain when your alignment is incorrect. Taking steps to correct your posture will help soothe your discomfort.
Avoid heavy lifting: When lifting objects, keep your back straight and bend at the knees. Lift with your legs, not your back. You should wear safety equipment if lifting heavy objects is a part of your job. Consider wearing a work back brace, gloves that have good grip, and steel-toed boots.