What is Sciatica?
Sciatica occurs when a spinal problem, such as a bone spur, presses on the sciatic nerve, which runs from your lower back and down your legs. The pain and inflammation that result can range from mild to severe. In some cases, sciatica goes away with minimal treatment, but some people end up needing spinal surgery in order to relieve severe or ongoing pain.
Symptoms of Sciatica
The main symptom of sciatica is pain that affects your lower back, buttock and the back of your leg. This pain usually only affects one side, although it can occur in both legs. In some cases, sciatica pain is also felt in the hip on the affected side. The severity of pain and inflammation vary, ranging from a dull ache to a burning sensation or sharp, sudden pain along your sciatic nerve. Sciatica pain can get worse when you stand up after sitting for awhile. It might also hurt more if you sneeze or cough. Keep in mind that you should see a doctor immediately if you have trouble controlling your bladder or bowels or if your affected leg feels numb or weak, since this can be a sign of more serious nerve damage.
Causes of Sciatica
Sciatica is a symptom of another kind of spinal problem that puts pressure on the sciatic nerve, such as a herniated disc, bone spur or tumor. This pressure causes pain and inflammation along the sciatic nerve on the affected side.
Treatment for Sciatica
The type of treatment you need for sciatica depends on the severity of your symptoms. Mild cases can usually be treated at home with the following measures:
- Over-the-counter pain medications: These medications can provide temporary relief from pain and inflammation.
- Stretches: Doing gentle stretches might help relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve. Stretches should be held for roughly 30 seconds.
- Cold and hot packs: You can put cold packs on the affected area on the first day or two that you feel pain. After that, hot packs might provide relief.
If you continue to experience sciatica or if you have severe pain, your doctor might recommend other treatment methods, such as:
- Prescription medication: Stronger pain relievers, such as anti-inflammatory medications or muscle relaxants, can offer more relief, but they cannot be taken on a long-term basis.
- Steroid injections: These injections of corticosteroids in the affected area can reduce pain and inflammation, although you can only safely have a limited number of these done due to the risk of side effects.
- Spinal surgery: Your doctor might recommend spinal surgery to remove a bone spur or correct a herniated disc that is causing sciatica. Surgery should provide you with long-term relief from sciatic pain, since the underlying cause is treated. Doctors typically recommend surgery for patients who have severe sciatica that does not improve with home care or other medical treatments. Surgery might also be recommended if sciatica is causing nerve damage that results in bowel or bladder weakness or leg numbness.
If you’ve been experiencing severe or ongoing symptoms of sciatica, contact a spinal surgeon to discuss treatment options.