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You have likely heard the term “sciatica” before. You may also be aware that the condition impacts the back, and can be rather painful– but for most people, that’s where the knowledge ends.
To an extent, that makes sense. If we all had to have an in-depth knowledge about every single health condition that might affect us, or someone we love, then we would hardly have room for anything else left in our brain. However, sciatica is a condition that you may wish to become more familiar with, due to the high likelihood of someone you know experiencing it.
A common issue
Sciatica is an incredibly common health complaint. In fact, many people who think they just have a “bad back” may actually be suffering from this life-altering condition. Health.Harvard.Edu state that as many as 40% of people will experience sciatica at some point in their lives. This shocking statistic means that it is almost inevitable you will deal with the condition at some point in your life, be it with your own health or the health of someone you care for.
Sciatica is a confusing condition, and when you dig deeper, you will see just how many contradictions and misconceptions people tend to have about the illness. Let’s go through the most common questions and explain a little more about this all-too-common condition.
What is sciatica?
There’s no better place to start than the beginning!
Sciatica is a nerve condition, which results in neuropathic pain. Neuropathic pain is a type of pain that means a nerve is being irritated, trapped, or outright damaged. Sciatica is when the neuropathic pain is being experienced somewhere on the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back and down into the leg. This images highlights the location of the sciatic nerve, which is highlighted in yellow:
When the sciatic nerve is compressed, it causes a considerable amount of pain. When this issue is chronic, it becomes known as sciatica.
What are the symptoms of sciatica?
As well as a burning pain — that is usually far more intense than the muscle/ligament pain we are all familiar with — sciatica is also notorious for causing numbness. This numbness can be felt in the lower back, or in the legs; the left leg is particularly susceptible. The pain or numbness is often worse when sitting.
Other symptoms of sciatica include:
- A constant pain on one side of the rear, which is not alleviated by standing.
- Hip pain or discomfort.
- Shooting pain that seems to radiate from the hip and moves down the leg.
- Symptoms of Restless Legs Syndrome; an unpleasant, creeping sensation that occurs in the legs when at rest.
The pain is usually severe. While it is possible to have ‘mild’ sciatica, the term ‘mild’ is very relative. When sciatica is present, it is always substantially painful– so if you just have the occasional nagging sensation in your back, you can usually rule sciatica out.
What causes sciatica?
Sciatica is caused by the compression of the sciatic nerve. The most common reason for the sciatic nerve to become compressed is a herniated disc. This occurs when one of the spinal discs either bulges, or is knocked slightly from its usual position, leading to the compression of the sciatic nerve.
Herniated discs can occur to anyone, at any age, if they suffer back trauma. They can also occur due to spending extended amounts of time sitting; when sitting at a desk for eight hours per day to work, for example. Additionally, MayoClinic.org suggest there is a genetic factor, so some people are just more prone to disc herniation than others.
It is worth noting that a herniated disc is also known as:
- Bulging disc
- Slipped disc
- Protruding disc
Herniated/bulging/slipped/protruding (take your pick!) discs are not a problem in and of themselves. Some people are diagnosed with herniated discs after scans, without ever experiencing any symptoms or problems with the area. So while a herniated disc can result in sciatica — and is the most common cause of the condition — these issues do not always present together.
A herniated disc is the most common cause of sciatica, but there are a few others causes:
- Degenerative Disc Disease is an illness where the name largely explains what the condition does. DDD causes discs to prematurely age and become weak, which can lead to sciatica.
- Scar tissue, known as epidural fibrosis, can form and compress the sciatic nerve.
- Sciatica is common during pregnancy, due to the sudden demands that pregnancy places on the body. Most women who experience sciatica during pregnancy find that the condition resolves itself when they have given birth.
- Muscle strain, or “throwing your back out” can cause inflammation around the sciatic nerve, which can be severe enough to cause compression.
- People are more likely to experience sciatica if they are overweight or work in a job that involves a large amount of sitting.
How is sciatica treated?
There are many different forms of treatment for sciatica at a medical level. Here’s an overview of the options available:
- Medication can be effective at managing the pain that sciatica causes, though pharmaceuticals do not correct the issue itself. The most commonly prescribed medication for sciatica is Pregabalin, though Gabapentin is also common. If you experience sciatica and wish to be prescribed pain relief, it is extremely likely that you will be prescribed one of these medications.
- Physiotherapy can help to relieve the burden on the spine, especially if sciatica is being caused by muscle damage in the area.
- Surgery is an option in cases of chronic sciatica, but it is usually seen as a last resort.
So sciatica can’t be cured?
Surgery may well be a cure, but the condition may reoccur. In the typical sense of the word “cured”, no, sciatica can’t be cured.
However, many sufferers find a huge amount of relief from a combination of the medicinal options and lifestyle changes that allow them to self-manage the condition.
What can people do to self-manage sciatica?
Many people with chronic sciatica take the situation into their own hands and introduce a variety of ways of coping with the issue. These are listed below, but remember: Always consult a doctor before beginning a treatment regime, just to make sure that the regime is suitable for your circumstances.
- Supplementing the B vitamins, particularly B12. The B vitamins have a huge influence on nerve health, so any deficiency can make sciatica pain all the more intense. People with sciatica supplement these vitamins in the hopes of improving their nerve health.
- Many people with sciatica like to do gentle exercises, especially exercises that focus on building the abdominal muscles. The general idea behind this is that the abdominals can be strengthened to a point where they can function as a ‘second spine’, helping to relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve as a result.
- Lifestyle changes are always beneficial with sciatica, and are something you will want to investigate if you, or someone you know, experiences sciatica. The biggest change you can make is to your bed; to ease compression, you need to ensure you have the right mattress to support you while you sleep. There are plenty of mattresses that will provide adequate support, so ensure you take the time to read through this Nectar mattress review and consider other well-known and well thought of brands. Look for user feedback as well as at the specifications on the mattress; reviews give a great insight into how supportive a product really is.
- Other lifestyle changes include regularly standing up and stretching while sitting. If you wish to try this, then set a timer to chime every 30 minutes. Every time it does so, stand up, stretch your back a little, and then return to your seated position. This encourages blood flow to your lower back and legs, and helps to relieve any pain you have been experiencing while sitting.
- Many sufferers of sciatica find that heat treatment helps to ease the pain. It is important to note that this will not cure or help sciatica heal; heat is more of a distraction for the nerves, so they focus less on sending pain signals. While heat therapy won’t treat sciatica, it may provide some relief.
- You may also find the use of a TENS machine beneficial. This acts as the heat does; distracting the nerve so it cannot send pain signals in the same way. TENS machines are small, lightweight, and portable, so this is useful if you experience sciatica but want to continue to live an active lifestyle.
Who is at risk of sciatica?
Anyone. The condition is more likely as you age due to natural disc degeneration, but anyone at any time can experience sciatica.
Sciatica is a painful, often debilitating condition that impacts a huge number of people. Without surgery it cannot be cured, but it can be managed. Sciatica can be both acute and chronic, meaning it can last for anything between a few days and for the rest of your life.
Hopefully, if you ever find yourself having to deal with sciatica, the tips and information above will be useful to you.