Sciatica: symptoms, causes, treatment and prevention
Updated: February 2020
Sciatic neuralgia, more commonly known as sciatica, is a sharp pain felt along the sciatic nerve pathway that runs down each leg. This pain usually radiates downward from your buttock along the back of your leg, and may go as far as your foot. In most cases, only one side of the body is affected.
Symptoms of sciatica
The main symptoms associated with sciatica are as follows:
- A severe pain starting from your lower back or buttock that radiates down your leg as far as your thigh, calf, or even your foot
- Pins and needles or numbness in your leg and/or foot
- Muscle weakness in your leg and/or foot
You may feel a stabbing or shooting pain. The pain is usually triggered by movement, gets worse when sitting, and eases off when lying down.
Causes of sciatica
The pain that you feel when you have sciatica is a sign of irritation in the sciatic nerve, which plays a role in movement and feeling in your legs. This irritation can have various causes, ranging from poor posture to an underlying condition.
Disc herniation (a ‘slipped disc’) is the most common cause of sciatica. This is when one of the inter-vertebral discs in your spine begins to press on one of the sciatic nerve roots, which is what triggers the pain. However, sciatica may also be caused by an injury (e.g. a fracture), a condition affecting your bones (such as osteoporosis or osteoarthritis), a tumour or clot in the surrounding area, an inflammatory condition (such as ankylosing spondylitis) or a tumour in the spine.
In most cases, sciatica passes within 4 weeks. However, we recommend that you see a doctor, who will be able to prescribe you the appropriate treatment. To make the diagnosis, your doctor will ask you about the exact location of your pain, how it travels, when it occurs, and the level of discomfort you experience.
While rest can help to relieve the pain as a first step (no more than 48 hrs), it is good to stay active in order to promote recovery. It may also be helpful to apply heat or cold to the painful area. Your doctor may also prescribe painkillers or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or in certain cases, injections. Once the acute phase has passed, your doctor may prescribe a course of physiotherapy. If your pain is caused by an underlying condition, treating this condition will relieve it. Finally, if the pain persists for more than three months, you may be offered surgery.
There are also some other, drug-free methods of treating pain, such as the OMRON HeatTens range of pain relievers, which use a combination of soothing heat and Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS).
There are several measures you can take to prevent sciatica. It is essential to be aware of your posture: keep your back straight, bend your knees if you have to pick up something heavy, and avoid crossing your legs when sitting down. It is also important to exercise regularly – taking care to warm up beforehand – because this will improve your flexibility and strengthen the muscles in your lower back.
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