Sciatica – What is it, Symptoms and Remedies

What is Sciatica?

Sciatica is a term used to characterise a back pain that travels along your leg, specifically along the path of the sciatic nerve. 

It originates in the lower back, travelling through the buttocks and down the leg, commonly affecting only one side of your body. 

While it can usually heal itself within 3 to 5 weeks if properly taken care of, sciatica pain can be extreme and, in some conditions, could result in numbness or loss of sensation in either leg. 

Sciatica is unique itself, as there is no gender bias between who does, or who does not, develop this condition. It rarely occurs in those aged less than 20 unless the cause is due to damage or trauma. And it is more common among those who have a certain, physically demanding occupational role [source].

About the Sciatic Nerve

The Sciatic nerve begins around the L4, L5 region of your spine (around your hips) and passes through the buttocks, back of the thigh and branches down to your feet. 

This nerve is the longest and widest in the human body, with the primary purpose of supplying sensory and motor support to the leg down to the feet. It ultimately helps your legs and feet to move and feel things. 

What causes Sciatica?

Sciatica pain is caused by a compression of your sciatic nerve. 

Common reasons leading to this compression include: 

  • Herniated disc. Sciatica commonly occurs due a herniated or bulging disc on your spine, which compresses the sciatic nerve 
  • Degenerative disc disease. You’re likely to develop it over age, as you become a little weaker and particularly if you work in a sector which may be physically strenuous, involving the use of the spine. 

Other causes of Sciatica can include:

  • Pregnancy, 
  • Muscle spasms, 
  • Spinal stenosis (which is the narrowing of the part of your spine where nerves pass through)
  • Spondylolisthesis (where one of the bones in your spine slips out of position)

Let’s go through each in more detail. 

Herniated Disc

A bulging or herniated disc (they are not the same) can press against the root nerve and compress delicate tissues which can cause sciatica. 

If your disc is herniated, it could lead to further complications. This is because a herniated disc releases a chemical which leads to nerve inflammation. This inflammation can cause even more pain and irritation, including numbing or muscle weakness. 

Degenerative Disc Disease

Degeneration of the disc can lead to a sciatica pain. This is because disc degeneration makes the disc more likely to herniate, as it wears and becomes more fragile as your body ages. 

Pregnancy

Sciatic like symptoms due to pregnancy are common. 

This can be caused by muscle tension, or more unlikely, a herniated or slipped disc. 

Other causes of sciatica during pregnancy can be attributed to: 

  • Weight gain and / or a growing belly – which puts pressure on the lower back by shifting your centre of gravity forward, and upsetting the natural curve of the spine
  • The Baby – who’s head can push on the sciatic nerve 

Damage to your back

Damage caused by forces to the spine, for example with whiplash occurring in a motor-accident, or falling down while playing sports (rugby, football, soccer) may cause damage to your spine and push your bones to compress the nerves. 

Spondylolisthesis

This is a condition where one of the bones in your spine slips out of position, and over adjacent discs. 

This in turn, causes a nerve root compression in your spine.

Symptoms of Sciatica 

The most common symptom of sciatica is a nerve pain which travels from the lower back down the back of your leg (behind your knee) and to your feet. 

Common symptoms include: 

  • Back and Leg Pain: the pain associated with sciatica is usually described as being a sharp, shooting pain which radiates from your lower back down your leg. It often causes more pain in the leg, than in the back itself [source]. This pain may get worse with movement. 
  • Weakness or Numbness: because of the compression on the nerve, you may experience feelings of numbness in the back of the leg. 

Treating Sciatica 

Sciatica is normally diagnosed by a medical professional who can undertake physical examinations to assess the extent of the issue. 

Sciatica treatment can include both surgical or non-surgical methods. 

Often, sciatica can be resolved with non-surgical treatment including physical therapy and alternative remedies. With proper treatment, sciatica can often resolve after 4-6 weeks. 

Recommendations include: 

Hot or Cold Packs

Using a mix of hot and cold therapy, a sufferer of sciatica can improve comfort and decrease inflammation. 

It is advisable to switch between hot and cold therapy on alternating days. During the earlier days, it is preferable to use cold therapy which helps reduce swelling and inflammation in the areas which are causing pain. Then, after a couple of days, switch to heat therapy which helps loosen your muscles, allowing you to relax more. 

Stretch 

Gently stretching can help relax and stretch your muscles. Your lower back is connected to your legs. And tight muscles in the legs can add extra strain on your back – by pulling your back downward. This could lead to pressure being placed on the sciatic nerve, causing sciatica. 

Stretching your back and legs can help offset this by keeping your muscles loose and flexible. 

Exercise

A weak core often leads to problems suffered in the lower back. Your core provides support to the structures which surround your spine. It’s works like a brace; keeping your body and spine up right and erect. 

If your abs are weak, they provide less stability and encourage a forward leaning posture; making your back susceptible to damage more easily. 

Exercise also stimulates the brain to release endorphins – or chemicals in your blood which help you feel good. This can temporarily reduce the pain, while strengthening your body to protect from future back problems.

Acupressure

Acupressure is a traditional Chinese remedy which, like acupuncture, targets meridian points in your body to help relieve stress, relax your muscles and promote the healing of injuries. 

There are a few pressure points which can help in relieving sciatica pain which you can do.  

Prevent Sciatica 

Prevention is the best remedy. And there are simple lifestyle changes you can make to prevent sciatica or prevent it from re-occurring.

  • Stretch: to loosen your muscles in the legs and back which could tighten up and put extra force on your back 
  • Exercise gently and frequently: doing so, while focusing on your core, can help strengthen your backs support muscles and help maintain a good posture, limiting the risk of suffering from sciatica
  • Be mindful of your lifestyle: do you work in a high risk environment, where you are bending over and lifting heavy objects? Or, are you playing an intense support which sends shockwaves to your spine on impact (boxing, rugby etc…)?
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