Sciatica is a common condition that affects the sciatic nerves, that branches from the lower back through the hips to the buttocks and down each leg. This complication typically affects only one side of the body.
The condition commonly occurs due to the spine narrowing, bone spur on the spine, or a herniated disk compressing a part of the sciatic nerve. The problems involve pain and numbness in the affected leg and inflammation.
What are the symptoms of sciatica?
Sciatica usually affects one side of the lower body. Although you may feel pain anywhere along the nerve path, it is likely to extend from the lower back to the back of your thigh and calf muscles.
Some of the common indications of sciatica include –
- Pain at the lower back and/or hips
- Pain in the rear side of the leg that worsens while sitting
- Tingling or burning sensation on the leg
- Numbness or weakness of the leg causing difficulty in moving
- A sharp pain the leg that makes it difficult to stand up
- Continuous pain at the back of the leg
For some people, the pain can be severe and excruciating; it might be irritating but infrequent for others. Seek medical attention if you observe any of the above symptoms gradually getting worse.
When to consult a doctor?
Mild sciatic pain usually gets cured over time. Even if your condition does not demand immediate attention, it is better to seek medical advice to prevent it from worsening.
You should consult a healthcare practitioner if you experience any of the following –
- Lasting excruciating pain in the leg for more than a couple of hours.
- Muscle weakness or numbness in the leg.
- Severe or sudden pain from trauma or sudden accident.
- Loss of bladder and bowel control.
What are the causes of sciatica?
Irritation of the lower lumbar or lumbosacral spinal nerve roots is one of the primary reasons for sciatica. Some of the other causes attributed to such pain include –
- Narrowing of the lower spinal canal or Lumbar spinal stenosis
- Breakdown of discs acting as a cushion between the vertebrae, also known as degenerative disc disease
- Slipping of one vertebra over the other, known as Spondylolisthesis
- Muscle spasms in the buttocks or at the back
What are the complications of sciatica?
Most people suffering from sciatica recover without any medical help. However, in the worst-case scenario, sciatica can result in permanent nerve damage. So, you should seek expert advice if you-
- Feel weak in the affected leg
- Observe the loss of bladder or bowel movement
- Lose sensation in the affected leg.
What are the risk factors of sciatica?
There are several risk factors associated with sciatica pain which include –
- Obesity: Excess body weight can increase the stress on your spine which can lead to an alteration in spinal alignment resulting in sciatica.
- Nature of work: If you are engaged in a job that requires you to lift heavy weights or drive a vehicle for a prolonged period or frequently twist your back, it can result in sciatica.
- Age: Many people experience changes in their spine with age, such as bone spurs and herniated disks that may result in sciatica.
- Sitting in one place for long hours: People who have a sedentary lifestyle or need to sit for long hours are at a higher risk of developing sciatica.
- Diabetes: People who have diabetes have an increased risk of nerve damage in the form of sciatica.
What are the treatment options for sciatica?
If self-care measures are not sufficient to cure sciatica, your physician might recommend these alternative treatment options –
Certain types of drugs might be effective for treating sciatica pain such as –
- Muscle relaxants
- Tricyclic antidepressants
- Anti-seizure medications
In certain cases, the doctor might prescribe an injection of corticosteroid medication into the region around the affected nerve root. This helps in reducing the pain by suppressing inflammation around the irritated nerve, which can take up to a few months. You can take only a limited number of steroid injections, as the risk of adverse effects increases when frequently injected.
Once the acute pain subsides, your doctor might recommend physiotherapy. A physical therapist will help to design a rehabilitation program to avoid getting further injuries. This usually includes certain exercises to strengthen the muscles supporting the back and correcting the posture to improve flexibility.
This is the last option undertaken by the physician when the compressed nerve causes loss of bladder control and bowel movement resulting in significant weakness or when the sciatic pain increases progressively with no improvement with others treatments. A portion of the herniated sick or the bone spur that is pressing the sciatic nerve is removed.
How can you prevent sciatica?
Not all cases of sciatica can be prevented, and complications may recur. However, you can follow certain preventive measures that might help you in protecting your back from sciatic pain. These include –
- Regular exercise: Give proper attention to your core muscles, especially the abdomen and the lower back muscles, to maintain a strong back. Consult your doctor to follow specific physical exercises.
- Following a proper sitting posture: This is one of the essential considerations for preventing sciatic pain. Choose a seat with proper lower back support, swivel base, and armrest. Place a rolled towel or a pillow at the curve of your back to maintain a normal posture. Maintain the correct level of the hips and knees.
- Use good body mechanics: If you need to stand for long hours, rest one foot on a stool at frequent intervals. When lifting any heavy object, put pressure on your lower part by keeping the back straight and only bending the knees. Do not twist and lift simultaneously. Take support while lifting any heavy object.
Most cases of sciatica do not need any medical attention or surgery. Self-treatment and time are all that is required to heal such pain. However, if simple at-home remedies and self-care do not heal such pain, get in touch with a medical practitioner. Your doctor will be able to find out the root cause of such pain and recommend various treatment options that can help to heal sciatica, or they may refer you to a specialist.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
1. Does sciatica cause swelling of the ankle and/or legs?
Sciatica caused by spinal stenosis, bone spur, or herniated disk that compresses the sciatic nerve, may cause swelling or inflammation of the affected leg. This, however, does not apply to all cases of sciatica.
2. How is sciatica diagnosed?
- X-ray: An X-ray taken of the spine may show bone spur or an overgrowth of bone that may be pressing on a nerve.
- MRI: In this procedure, a powerful magnet and radio waves are used to produce cross-sectional images of your back. An MRI scan may produce detailed images of bone and soft tissues like herniated disks. During this test, you have to lie on a table that moves into the MRI machine.
- CT scan: When a CT scan is used to capture the image your spine, you may be given a contrast dye injection into the spinal canal before X-rays are taken — it is a procedure called a CT myelogram. The dye injected in your body, which appear white on the scan, circulates around the spinal cord and your spinal nerves,.
- Electromyography (EMG): EMG test measures the electrical impulses generated by your nerves including the responses of your muscles. This test can diagnose if there is nerve compression caused by spinal stenosis (narrowing of your spinal canal) or herniated disks.
3. How can I tell if the pain in my hip is due to sciatica or some other reason?
Hip problems due to arthritis usually cause pain in the groin when moving the leg . But if the pain starts from the back and radiates towards the hip and down the leg, with feelings of numbness, weakness, or a tingling sensation, it is likely to be due to sciatica.
4. Is walking good for sciatica?
Surprisingly, walking can be an effective approach to relieving sciatic pain. It helps to release pain-fighting endorphins that reduce inflammation. However, you need to be careful while walking, as a poor walking posture may aggravate your sciatic pain.