Published December 21, 2011
Sciatica refers to pain that radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve — the body’s longest — from the lower back down the buttock and leg. Sciatica, medically known as Lumbar Racidulopathy, is by itself is a symptom, not a full-blown disorder and can signal an underlying health condition such as a herniated disk, according to the Mayo Clinic. The pain will usually resolve itself within a few months, although severe cases may require medical intervention. If you are feeling pain from your hips to your feet, here’s a guide to sciatica from top to bottom:
The sciatic nerve controls many of the muscles of the lower leg, beginning at the hip and buttocks and continuing through the legs to the feet. The sciatic nerve leaves the central nervous system through the spine and the first parts of the nerve to leave the central nervous system are called nerve roots. When one or more of these nerve roots are irritated or compressed in the lumbar spine at the bottom of the spinal column, you feel the symptoms of sciatica, doctors explain. This condition can be caused by a number of bone and tissue problems in the lumbar spine.
The cardinal sign of sciatica is pain or numbness. The pain can vary widely, from a mild ache to a sharp or excruciating discomfort, according to the Mayo Clinic. The discomfort usually starts in the lower back, moving through the buttocks and along the backs of the legs. The lower back pain is usually less severe than leg pain, and the symptoms rarely occur on both sides of the body, according to the Mayo Clinic. Sciatica is usually worse when you sit or stand, but the pain lessens when walking around or lying down. Because the sciatic nerve is responsible for sensory feelings in your legs and feet, you may experience numbness or muscle weakness in those areas. According to the Mayo Clinic, in the very rare cases when a loss of bladder or bowel control accompany sciatica, the patient should receive emergency medical care. This combination could be a sign of cauda equina syndrome, a serious neurological condition.
A herniated disk is a common cause of sciatica. A vertebral disk has an outer wall with a soft, gel-like center. When the outer wall is ruptured, due to injury or age-related wear, the nucleus of the disk presses against an adjacent nerve root. The pressure on the sciatic nerve can then cause radiating pain. A herniated disk can happen for a number of reasons, such as excess body weight or lifting large, heavy objects. Other underlying conditions that may cause sciatic pain include: lumbar spinal stenosis, degenerative disk disease, Piriformis syndrome, spinal tumors or trauma to the back — from a fall or car accident — can also lead to sciatica, according to medical experts. Other risk factors can include age-related changes in the spine or jobs that require you to sit for prolonged periods of time. Diabetes also affects the way your body uses blood sugar, increasing your risk of nerve damage, according to Mayo Clinic experts.
Sciatica typically responds well to self care, as the protruding bulge from the disk tends to shrink over time. You can treat the pain with cold and hot packs or over-the-counter pain medications, the Mayo Clinic advises. Stretching and light exercise may help alleviate the pressure on your back. For serious cases, doctors may prescribe drugs or recommend a physical therapy program. Physical therapy will usually work toward correcting posture and strengthening the muscles of the bag and legs. This treatment has the benefit of driving down pain away and preventing sciatica from coming back.