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Sciatica overview

Sciatica is a term often associated with lower back pain, but it actually describes a collection of symptoms in the lower back, not just pain.

The term “sciatica” describes the symptoms that occur when the sciatic nerve — the largest nerve in the body — is compressed, often due to a spine condition or muscle inflammation. This nerve runs the length of the lower back, on either side of the spine, and stretches all the way down to the legs and feet. Therefore, when the sciatic nerve is compressed, the sciatica symptoms can appear almost anywhere in the lower body, from the lumbar spine to the buttocks, legs and feet.

Patients with sciatica can often find relief through conservative treatments, though sometimes spine surgery is recommended if the conservative treatments prove ineffective after several months.

Causes of sciatica

Sciatica is often caused by two components. In many cases, sciatica pain is caused by a muscle injury or a spine condition, and patients can often tell the difference based on the time period of the symptoms.

When sciatica is caused by a pulled or damaged muscle, the beginning of the symptoms can often be pinpointed to the date of the injury. Similarly, as the injury heals, the symptoms also disappear.

However, when sciatica is caused by a spine condition, the symptoms often develop slowly as the damaged piece of the spine presses into the sciatic nerve. Common spine conditions that cause sciatica include:

  • Bulging disc
  • Bone spur
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Herniated disc
  • Facet joint disease
  • Spondylolisthesis

These conditions cause a disc, bone or joint within the spine to protrude from normal alignment, sometimes compressing a nearby nerve root. In instances of spine conditions developing in the lumbar spine — the most common area for the development of degenerative spine conditions — the largest and often nearest nerve root is the sciatic nerve.

When a spine condition causes the sciatic nerve to be pinched, painful and debilitating sciatica symptoms can develop, often prompting a visit to the doctor’s office.

Symptoms of sciatica

As previously mentioned, sciatica is a collection of symptoms that results from the compression of the sciatic nerve. These symptoms can include:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Burning sensation
  • Limited mobility
  • Stiffness
  • Difficulty walking
  • Tingling sensation
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control — for this symptom, seek emergency medical attention immediately

Because the sciatic nerve stretches into the buttocks, legs and feet from the lower back, the symptoms of sciatica can reach into these areas as well.

If you begin to experience these symptoms and they do not subside with home remedies like rest and hot/cold compresses, schedule an appointment with your doctor to receive a diagnosis of the cause of your sciatica pain.

Diagnosing sciatica

Sciatica is often diagnosed through a physical examination and medical imaging, as well as additional questions about your symptoms and medical history.

The physical examination portion of the diagnostic process will involve your doctor pressing into areas of your spine (typically your lower back, in this case) and areas along the sciatic nerve pathway. The purpose of this is to locate where the compression is occurring along the sciatic nerve and where the symptoms are reaching.

Once the doctor locates the area of the sciatic nerve that is compressed, he or she will likely order an MRI or CT scan to accurately view the anatomy of your spine to see what is causing your nerve compression. This medical imaging test will allow your doctor to diagnose the cause of your sciatica and recommend an appropriate treatment for your specific needs.

Treatment for sciatica

Treatment for sciatica can be divided into two categories: nonsurgical and surgical. Often, doctors will begin to treat sciatica symptoms with a series of nonsurgical, conservative treatments, saving surgery as a last-resort treatment option.

Conservative treatments will often be recommended in a combination of two or more options that best fit your condition and lifestyle. Nonsurgical treatment options include:

  • Pain medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Chiropractic care
  • Hot/cold compresses
  • Weight loss
  • Daily stretches and yoga
  • Low-impact exercises
  • Corticosteroid injections

If these treatments prove ineffective for pain relief after several months, your doctor may recommend spine surgery.

At Laser Spine Institute, we offer patients an alternative to traditional open back surgery with our minimally invasive spine surgery. To date, our procedures have helped more than 75,000 patients find relief from chronic neck or back pain, and our surgery is often the clinically appropriate first choice over traditional open spine surgery.

If you’ve been suffering from the pain of sciatica, contact Laser Spine Institute today for a no-cost MRI review* to see if you are a candidate for one of our minimally invasive procedures. Let us help guide you along your journey to wellness and pain relief.