The sciatic nerve begins in the lower back, extends through the buttocks and goes down the length of the leg. It is the longest nerve in the body. The pain that occurs when this nerve becomes inflamed or compressed is called sciatica.
The pain can be felt at any part of the nerve or along its entire length. Sciatica may take several forms, including:
- Dull or sharp pain
- Mild to extreme pain
- Burning sensation
- "Pins and needles" tingling
- Pain that lasts for weeks or occurs only now and then
- Weakness in the affected area
- Pain when sneezing or coughing
Activity may make the pain more intense. For some patients, sciatica is worse at night.
Causes and Risk Factors
Herniated (slipped) discs account for most cases of sciatica. Discs are rings with tough exteriors and soft insides. They are located between the bones of the spine and act as shock absorbers.
Discs can become weak because of pressure from twisting and bending movements, heavy lifting, bad posture, pregnancy, obesity or other conditions that place strain on them. A weakened disc may herniate (bulge out). If the bulge pushes up against the sciatic nerve or crushes it, sciatica occurs.
After doing a thorough physical examination, the doctor may put the patient through a number of flexibility and muscle-strength tests.
In most cases, sciatica goes away on its own after a few days or weeks and the patient is able to go back to routine activities.
At first, rest may be necessary until inflammation in the nerve is reduced. To keep the patient comfortable, anti-inflammatory drugs or simple pain medications may be taken. Applying heat or cold to the affected area may also help relieve the symptoms.
As soon as possible, the patient should resume being active by going back to work, doing physical therapy, walking, and stretching. This is the best way to reduce inflammation in the sciatic nerve.
Non-operative treatment may include epidural injections into the spinal canal.
Surgery is recommended only if sciatica becomes overwhelming and lasts for an extended period of time. The surgeon will remove part of the bulging disc so that it is no longer pressing against the nerve.