If you suffer from sciatica, you know how painful it can be. It can disrupt your daily life, affecting everything from sitting in the car to standing in the kitchen to make a meal.
Sciatica is a term used for any pain or symptom that causes numbness or sensation like tingling along the sciatic nerve. This means sciatic nerve pain isn’t a true diagnosis, but a description of the pain you are experiencing that can help doctors properly assess your pain to determine a source.
The sciatic nerve runs from your lower back through your hips and down each leg. Generally, when a patient experiences sciatica, it only affects one side of the body.
Common Causes of Sciatica
Most commonly, sciatica is caused by a herniated disc. Although, there are other lower back conditions that can attribute to sciatic nerve pain: arthritis, spinal stenosis, and spondylolisthesis. Sciatica can also be painful if there is a pinched nerve from a bone spur or tumor that is pressing on the nerve.
Types of Sciatica
Neurogenic sciatica is caused by compression of the sciatic nerve, caused by a number of things, such as bulging discs to tight muscles. The discs can bulge, herniate, or burst, and this causes pressure on the nerves along the spine. Direct pressure on the spinal cord also compresses the sciatic nerve, as well as tight muscles from the buttocks and upper thigh.
Typically, pain is worse in the leg than in the back. Symptoms vary depending on how severe the pressure is, but the pain can be described as sharp, shooting, and even burning pain. It’s common to experience numbness, hot and cold sensations, muscle weakness, and tingling.
This type of sciatic nerve pain is associated with abnormal neurological exam findings like loss of normal reflexes, sensory changes, and muscle weakness.
Referred pain is caused by a muscle or joint problem in the spine or pelvis. It is not truly a form of sciatica, but mirrors the pain and symptoms. It is important to determine the cause of the pain. This type of sciatic nerve pain is usually dull and achy, not usually giving off a sensation of pins and needles.
This type of pain is not caused by a pinched nerve, but by a sprain or strained joints and muscles.
Symptoms of Sciatica
One of the trademark symptoms of sciatica is pain that radiates from your lower spine to the buttocks or down the back of the leg. Pain or discomfort may be felt anywhere along the nerve path.
Pain can vary from a mild, dull ache to a sharp, burning sensation or severe pain. Sciatica pain can be worsened by prolonged sitting or even coughing and sneezing. Some people experience numbness, tingling or muscle weakness in the affected area.
Risk Factors for Sciatic Nerve Pain
There are multiple reasons you may experience sciatica, including:
- Age: age-related changes in the spine can cause bone spurs and compressed nerves
- Obesity: Excessive body weight can cause extra weight and pressure on the spine and trigger spinal changes that cause sciatica.
- Diabetes: Fluctuating blood sugar increases your risk for nerve damage.
- Long Periods of Sitting: People who have sedentary lifestyles are much more likely to develop sciatica than active people.
Preventing Sciatic Nerve Pain
While sciatica may not be completely avoidable, there are certain ways to protect your back from recurring pain:
- Regular Exercise: Keeping your back strong and paying attention to core strength in the abdomen and lower back are essential for proper alignment.
- Maintain Good Posture When You Sit: Sitting with lower back support, armrests, and a swivel base help your posture. Keep you knees and hips level, and consider adding a small pillow in the small of your back to maintain its normal curve.
- Be Mindful of Good Body Mechanics: Be mindful of your body while doing regular daily activities and if you do physical labor for work. If you stand for a long time, alternate propping your feet up on a small box from time to time. When lifting something heavy, use your knees instead of relying on your back – keep your back straight and bend at the knees. Get help lifting large items so you don’t stress your muscles or joints.