What is Sciatica?

Sciatica refers to pain felt in the lower extremity resulting from irritation of the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body, running from each side of the lower spine down the back of each leg.

The pain of sciatica is felt from the lower back to behind the thigh. It can also radiate down below the knee.

Most cases of sciatica result from a lumbar disk herniation, which presses on the nerve and causing inflammation or irritation of the sciatic nerve. Aside from herniated disk, the sciatic nerve may also be irritated as a result of tumors, internal bleeding, injury, and infection in or around the lumbar spine. Sciatica may also occur during pregnancy.

Symptoms of Sciatica

Sciatica can cause pain that begins in the back or buttock, radiating down the back of the thigh and into the lower leg or foot. The pain, which is usually described as sharp or searing, is alleviated through movements that extend the spine. These include walking and lying down.

Aside from the pain, there can also be weakness or numbness when moving the leg or foot, “pins-and-needles” sensation, and numbness down the leg.

Diagnosing Sciatica

A review of the patient’s medical history as well as a thorough physical exam can help in diagnosing sciatica. In some cases, additional tests are needed to determine the underlying cause of it. These tests include X-rays, electromyogram, MRI scan, and CT scan.

How It Is Treated

Most cases of sciatica improve through nonsurgical methods. These include the application of heat/ice compress, medications such as muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatory drugs, and narcotics, physical therapy, and steroid injections.

If nonsurgical methods don’t work and the compressed nerve causes significant weakness, progressive pain, or loss of bowel or bladder control, then surgery is recommended. The surgery usually involves removal of the portion of the herniated disk or bone spur that’s pressing on the pinched nerve.