There's Hope for Sciatica
Pain or discomfort that travels along the sciatic nerve is called sciatica. The sciatic nerves run from your lower back, down through each hip and buttock and into the back part of each leg. It usually affects only one side. Sciatica is often painful, but rarely causes serious or permanent damage. Most sciatica is caused by inflammation, which may be related to an underlying condition. Most often, it can be diagnosed and treated conservatively.
Sciatica pain may feel dull, aching, or burning. It is usually worse when sitting or standing for long periods of time. Sometimes it starts gradually, worsens at night, and is aggravated by motion. Sneezing, coughing, laughing, lifting, bending, or having difficulty with bowel movements may increase the pain. It also can cause tingling, numbness, or muscle weakness in the affected leg.
The pain often results from pressure or irritation to the sciatic nerve. The pressure or irritation can have several causes, including a narrowing of the area in the lower back that the spinal cord passes through (a condition called lumbar spinal stenosis); a displaced, or herniated disk in the lower spine; pregnancy; obesity; and a breakdown of the disks (a condition called degenerative disk disease).
An exam by your health care provider is important to help determine if you have sciatica. He or she may check your reflexes, foot and leg strength, and flexibility. Blood tests, X-rays, or MRI scans also may be recommended to help determine what's causing the condition.
Unless you have diabetes or nerve damage, apply cold to your lower back for the first day or so. Doing this for 10 to 15 minutes at a time, 3 to 4 times a day may help relieve the pain. Then, alternating heat and cold may be soothing. Take an over-the-counter pain reliever if your health care provider says it's OK. Your health care provider may also recommend steroid injections, physical therapy, or surgery.
For most people, sciatica usually goes away on its own within 6 weeks of self-care. See your health care provider if the pain gets worse and it's difficult to do daily activities.
These are reasons to seek emergency help:
You have sudden loss of bowel or bladder control; lack of mobility; or numbness, tingling, or weakness in your legs or feet.
You have numbness or tingling in a saddle pattern (the area of your body that would be touching the saddle if you were riding a horse).
- Larson, Kim APRN, FNP
- MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician