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Sciatica Pain: What Causes It and How To Get Relief

Sciatica is one of the most common types of nerve pain, affecting up to 40 percent of the population. Rather than being a disorder of its own, the pain is actually a symptom of several other lower back spinal disorders.

The condition is in the news after Grammy-winning singer Adele has told fans she has been dealing with sciatica, along with other back issues, since she was a teenager. The 34-year-old artist sought to explain why she has been “wobbling” during recent stage performances.

The condition is caused by an irritation or inflammation of the sciatic nerve, your body’s longest and thickest nerve. The nerve – it actually begins as five spinal nerve roots – originates in the buttock area and travels down your legs, eventually branching into your feet and toes.

Sciatica can be caused by a variety of medical conditions. It is one of the more common symptoms associated with lower back disorders, including situations where a disk presses against a spinal nerve.

Pain and symptoms can vary widely from person to person. There may be severe pain shooting down one or both legs. There could be a throbbing ache that starts in the buttocks and extends to the knee and ankle. The pain may occur in many different positions but for some it can occur when they are standing and applying weight to one side more than the other. And some people experience numbness and tingling in their legs, feet and toes.

There are numerous risk factors for sciatica, including:

  • Lower back or spinal injuries
  • Aging (degeneration of bone tissue and spinal disk)
  • Being overweight
  • Weak core muscles (in the abdomen and back)
  • Job (particularly those requiring heavy lifting)
  • Poor weight-lifting technique
  • Diabetes (causes nerve damage)
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Inactive lifestyle
  • Smoking

Treating Sciatica

An important thing to remember about sciatica is that it is a symptom of some other problem. So it can be counterproductive to attempt self-diagnosis and treatment. One of the initial goals of treatment is to determine the root cause of the problem. The answer to that question can help determine treatment.

In some cases, sciatica may go away with simple self-care, including ice/cold packs, gentle stretches and over-the-counter medications for pain, inflammation and swelling. But waiting two months before seeking medical help can significantly delay recovery time.

Among the treatment options:

Physical therapy: Your therapist will work with you on a variety of potential solutions. If disk compression is to blame, “directional preferences” may be used to identify postures that alleviate pain and other symptoms. Exercises and stretches may be used to provide better stabilization for your core, to avoid an imbalance that causes tightness in your muscles. Another option is “dry needling,” where thin, flexible needles are inserted into a muscle belly to reduce trigger points, which can help reduce muscle tension.

Prescription medications: More powerful medications can help fight pain, muscle spasms and inflammation that may be contributing to the sciatica.

Spinal injections: Steroids may reduce pain and swelling around the nerves. These often provide relief for up to three months.

Surgery: Various surgical options may be recommended if no relief is found through alternative methods.

Is it Permanent?

Fortunately, sciatica is likely to go away without surgery. Most people (80 percent to 90 percent) can get past it through physical therapy and medication. Often, full recovery occurs in one to two months – younger patients tend to rebound faster than older patients.

Unfortunately, the condition has an 80 percent recurrence rate. So, even after a sciatica episode is over, you’ll need to continue working on posture, stretches and exercises. Your physical therapist can help you develop a home routine to reduce the chances of a flareup.

You will also learn to recognize early warning signs that can help you avoid a debilitating episode. For example, after spending a long day in theme park lines, you might notice tightness in the muscles of your buttocks, which could lead to further inflammation. You’ll know it’s time to do some extra stretching to help calm those muscles.

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