Sciatica is one of the most common types of pain. As many as 40% of people will experience sciatica pain at some point in their lifetime, and the frequency of sciatica increases with age. Individuals with existing acute or chronic back pain find themselves more susceptible to sciatica, as well as those who are obese, those who smoke, and those who are sedentary. Although this can get lumped in with standard back pain, it is different and should be treated as such.
Sciatica originates in the sciatic nerves. These are the body’s two largest nerves, about as thick as a pinky finger. These nerves stem from the lower lumbar spine, passing through the buttocks, down the back of the legs, down to the soles of the feet and through to the big toes. When the nerve fibers of the sciatic nerves become irritated or pinched people experience sciatic pain. This pain can be felt anywhere along the nerve’s branch from the lumbar spine to the foot and no two episodes of pain are the same. Symptoms can range from soreness or numbness to stabbing pain, electric shock sensations, tingling, throbbing, heat, or aches. When people experience sciatic pain not only are they dealing with discomfort, but normal movements such as walking or standing can become difficult.
Causes of Sciatica
Herniated discs are one of the most common causes of sciatica pain. As people age the discs of the spine can begin to weaken. When this happens, a vertebrae can slip causing the nerve fibers to compress or pinch. This can occur as a result of an injury, however, this typically occurs from years of bending or sitting for extended periods of time. Bone spurs on the spine and the narrowing of the spine, also known as spinal stenosis, can also cause sciatica pain. Osteoarthritis, which affects over 32 million adults in the United States, can also cause a narrowing of the space where the roots of the sciatic nerve exist in the lower spine. This narrowing this space can injure the nerve fibers resulting in sciatica pain. Piriformis syndrome can also result in sciatica as the piriformis muscle in the buttocks compresses the sciatic nerve.
Sciatica pain typically resolves within a few days or hours. However, there are times when the pain does not seem to go away on its own. Some common, at-home treatments to alleviate the pain include rest, applying ice three times per day for 15-20 minutes, and over the counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If the pain does not subside steroid injections may be an available option. Corticosteroids help reduce inflammation therefore helping to reduce pain. This relief is temporary but offers a minimally invasive solution to help alleviate a patient’s discomfort. Physical therapy is another form of treatment that may provide more long-term results. Exercises to correct posture, improve flexibility, and strengthen the muscles that support the lower back may help prevent future injuries and sciatica pain in the future.
Prevention is not always possible as this condition can recur, but there are preventable steps that can be taken to avoid a recurrence or the pain from starting in the first place. Regular physical exercise to strengthen the back and core will help protect the lower back and maintain proper alignment. In addition, be mindful of good body mechanics. As the digital age expands and many people work primarily on laptops or at desks, the sedentary lifestyle is increasing exponentially. Stand up and take small walks, if jobs require more standing, take breaks to sit or stretch. Use leg strength when heavy lifting as opposed to the back. Being aware of posture, movement, and exercise are all ways to help prevent sciatica pain.