What Is Sciatica?

Back pain comes in all shapes and sizes. It can flare up immediately after an injury or appear slowly and mysteriously over a period of months. It might be sudden and short-lived (acute) or long-lasting (chronic).

Over-the-counter medicines help with some types of back pain, but only powerful drugs and surgery can fix others.

Sometimes it’s hard to identify the source of your back pain, but other times you can pinpoint it easily. Sciatica is one of those that’s pretty simple to identify. Home remedies can work fast, so you might not even have to call a doctor.

How Sciatica Works

Sciatica usually starts with a herniated disk in your lumbar (lower) spine. Your vertebrae (the bones that make up your spine) are separated and cushioned by flat, flexible, round disks of connective tissue. When a disk gets worn down -- either because of an injury or just years of use -- its soft center can begin to push out from the hard outer ring.

When a disk herniates, it might put pressure on the nerves around it. This can cause a lot of pain when that happens to be the sciatic nerve.

The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It starts in your lower back and splits to run through your hips, buttocks, legs, and feet on both sides. Bone spurs and spinal stenosis (narrowing) can also put pressure on the sciatic nerve in the lower back. When that happens, it can cause a lot of problems all the way down the nerve.

The most distinctive sign of sciatica is pain that radiates from your lower back into the back or side or your legs. It can range from a mild ache to sharp, severe pain. You can also get numbness, tingling, and weakness in your leg or foot.

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Risk Factors

Age. Most people who get sciatica are between 30 and 50 years old.

Weight. Extra pounds can puts pressure on your spine, which means people who are overweight and pregnant women have a greater chance of getting a herniated disk.

Diabetes can cause nerve damage.

Your job. Lots of heavy lifting -- or prolonged sitting -- can damage disks.

Treatment

Most people with sciatica get better in a few weeks without surgery. Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) can help relieve pain, although they should be only a short-term solution.

Your doctor might also recommend putting cold packs on your lower back for a couple of days and then switching to hot packs for a few days after that. There are also lots of good stretches for lower-back and sciatic pain relief.

Your first instinct might be to rest and take it easy when you have sciatica, but it’s actually more important to keep moving. If you sit still, the nerve will continue to be irritated in that spot. Staying in motion will reduce the inflammation.

If home remedies don’t work, your doctor will probably prescribe stronger medication, like anti-inflammatories or muscle relaxants. You might also try steroid injections, physical therapy, acupuncture, or chiropractic care.

If your pain lasts for more than 3 months, it might be time for surgery. See your doctor immediately if your sciatica causes severe pain and weakness, numbness, and loss of bladder or bowel function.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Lisa Bernstein, MD on October 14, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. “Sciatica.”

Mayo Clinic. “Sciatic Nerve.”

Mayo Clinic. “Sciatica.”

 

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