What you need to know about sciatica

Sciatica or sciatic nerve pain is a condition that affects the sciatic nerve, a spinal nerve root located in the lower back, causing pain felt in the back, hip, and outer portion of either leg.

The largest nerve in the body, the sciatic nerve originates from the nerve roots in the lumbar spinal cord in the lower back, extending to the buttocks, with nerve endings terminating down to the lower limbs.

Pain from sciatica usually affects only one side of the lower body, often around the lower back region and extending to the rear of the thigh and down the leg, below the knee. In some cases, the pain can also reach the foot and its toes.

Some patients with sciatica suffer from severe pain, while for others, the pain may be mild and only occur from time to time (although these may potentially lead to severe complications down the line if left untreated).

What are the common causes of sciatica?

Irritation or inflammation of the sciatic nerve is the primary reason for producing symptoms of sciatica. Compressed/pinched nerves from an intervertebral disc is another common reason. Other potential causes include injury, tumors, internal bleeding, muscle or bone disorders or infections affecting the lumbar spine.

Risk factors and symptoms

Some of the common risk factors for sciatica include:

  • Lumbar disc disease
  • Slipped disc
  • Degenerative arthritis in the lumbar spine
  • Injuries or trauma of the lumbar spine

Common symptoms include:

  • Lower back pain
  • Hip pain
  • Burning or tingling felt in the lower leg
  • Constant pain felt in one side of the rear
  • Numbness, weakness, or difficulty when moving a leg and/or toes
  • Pain in the leg or buttocks that gets worse when in a sitting position
  • Sharp pain which can make it difficult to stand or walk

Pain from sciatica can range from mildly irritating and infrequent to constant and debilitating. The location of the patient’s sciatic nerve determines the type of symptoms which may occur.

Even in more severe cases, sustaining permanent tissue damage to the sciatic nerve is rare. The condition can also be affected by the spinal cord, although this is rare as well.

Course and duration of sciatica pain

Sciatica is most likely to develop in people around the ages of 40 to 50. In most cases, the condition develops over time, rather than being the result of injury.

Majority of patients with sciatica who have undergone non-surgical treatment have reported improvement and pain relief after several weeks or months. To reduce pain and check for potential serious complications, seeing a doctor is advised, especially if symptoms persist after treatment.

How to find out if it’s serious

Although they’re rare, there are symptoms of sciatica that may immediately require medical (or even surgical) intervention. Some of these symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Bowel or bladder dysfunction
  • Severe leg numbness or weakness

There are also recorded cases wherein spinal tumors or infection were the main cause of sciatica. For severe pain, surgery may be the only choice.