What Is Sciatic Nerve Pain?
Sciatica is a general term used to describe a variety of symptoms occurring with pain that radiates from the lower back or hip to the back of the thigh and into the leg, usually to the foot or ankle. Sciatica most often occurs in people between the ages of 30 to 50 years.
What Are Symptoms of Sciatic Nerve Pain?
Symptoms of sciatic nerve pain usually originate from the sciatic nerve in the lower back, and run from the hip, down the back or side of the leg, to the foot or ankle, and include:
- Pain that feels like a bad leg cramp
- Sharp, "knife-like," or electrical-feeling pain
- Cramps that can last for weeks
- Pain may occur especially when moving, sneezing, or coughing
- "Pins and needles"
- Burning sensation
- Tingling sensation
What Causes Sciatic Nerve Pain?
Most sciatic nerve pain is caused by impairments related to a spinal nerve root (radiculopathy) at the L5 or S1 level from a disc disorder, plus any sudden pressure on the disks that cushion the bones (vertebrae) of the lower spine.
Common causes of sciatica include:
- Normal wear and tear from aging
- Degenerative disc disease
- Lumbar spinal stenosis
- Muscle spasm in the back or buttocks
Risk factors for developing sciatica include:
How Is Sciatic Nerve Pain Diagnosed?
Sciatic nerve pain is diagnosed with a complete patient history and a physical examination.
The physical exam may involve tests that help locate the irritated nerve root. Patients may be asked to:
- Squat and rise
- Walk on heels and toes
- Perform a straight-leg raising test
Imaging tests used to help diagnose sciatica include:
What Is the Treatment for Sciatic Nerve Pain?
Sciatica usually heals on its own with rest over time. About 80% to 90% of patients will recover within several weeks.
Nonsurgical treatment to relieve sciatic nerve pain includes:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Muscle relaxants
- Application of gentle heat or cold on painful muscles
- Stay active, but find comfortable positions because activity helps reduce inflammation
- Take short walks as advised by your doctor
- Light stretching
- Strengthen the core muscles of the abdomen and lower back
- Physical therapy
- Injections into the spinal area with a cortisone-like drug
If sciatic nerve pain is disabling for 3 months or more despite nonsurgical treatment, surgery may be recommended. Surgery is usually successful at stopping the pain. The procedure may be performed under local, spinal, or general anesthesia. The two main types of surgery used to treat sciatic nerve pain include:
What Are Complications of Sciatic Nerve Pain?
Complications of sciatica are rare, but may include:
- Permanent nerve damage
- Weakness in the affected leg
- Loss of feeling in the affected leg
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
How Do You Prevent Sciatic Nerve Pain?
Some cases of sciatic nerve pain may be prevented. To reduce the risk of developing sciatica:
- Use proper lifting techniques with a straight back, bending at the knees, with the object held close
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Don’t smoke because smoking promotes disc degeneration
- Exercise the core muscles regularly to support the spine
- Use good posture when sitting and standing
- Avoid sitting for prolonged periods
- Keep blood sugar well-managed if you have diabetes