Your sciatic nerve is the longest, thickest nerve in your entire body. It has five nerve roots that run from your lower back, through your lumbar spine, down through your buttocks and lower leg. Your sciatic nerve branches off into other nerves that extend as far as your feet and toes via the back of the leg. So when we say it’s the longest nerve in your body, we mean that -- it runs the length of half your body.
What Is Sciatica?
Now that you know what your sciatic nerve is, sciatica gets a lot easier to explain. Sciatica actually refers to injury or damage to this sciatic nerve, although “sciatica” is colloquially used to refer to pain that starts in your lower back and radiates down your leg. Sciatica can present with a fairly wide range of symptoms, but they’re all centered around this long sciatic nerve.
What Are The Symptoms Of Sciatica?
Sciatica most commonly manifests itself as pain. This pain can be mildly annoying, or it can be severe and debilitating. The easiest way to identify your pain is its location, and the low back pain will often start to radiate down the back of the thigh, contributing to buttock pain, as well. It is often described as shooting pain, and it tends to be rather severe pain. Sometimes, medical conditions with your spinal cord, piriformis syndrome, or other issues will manifest in a similar way, however,
If it’s truly sciatica, caused by damage to the sciatic nerve, the nerve pain will most likely get worse with movement. Abrupt movements like you might experience when you cough or sneeze can also increase your chronic pain. Sciatica can occur in both legs, but it’s most likely to manifest in one leg at a time. This just depends on where the nerve is being pinched along the spinal column or where the nerve has been damaged.
You also may experience numbness or weakness in your legs or feet. Sciatica can also cause a pins and needles sensation -- sort of like what you feel if your hand or foot falls asleep -- or painful tingling in your legs or feet. If your sciatica is severe enough, it’s possible you could even lose feeling in your lower extremities or potentially have impaired movement.
In some cases, sciatica can even cause incontinence, which is the loss of your ability to control your bladder. This is a rare symptom, however, and is indicative of a larger problem. While you should seek medical advice if you’re experiencing sciatic nerve pain, regardless, if you experience this symptom, you should seek medical treatment immediately.
Despite its painful effects, sciatica is a very common affliction. About 40% of Americans will experience sciatica at some point during their life. So if you’re experiencing sciatica, you’re not alone.
What Causes Sciatica?
Sciatica is a common problem with a variety of possible causes. Sciatica can be acute or chronic, and whether or not your sciatica pain is temporary is often related to its cause. It’s also important to see your healthcare provider so that you can determine the source of your sciatic pain -- some of the problems that could lead to sciatica will need medical attention, while others are more easily relieved.
A herniated disk can apply pressure to the sciatic nerve root, and so is a common cause of sciatica. If you have sciatica, it’s most likely caused by a herniated disc. A herniation is serious but also very common. They can be caused by aging, degenerative conditions, excessive weight gain, or even sudden jarring movements, like lifting weights, or other intense, abrupt movements.
Spinal stenosis describes an abnormal narrowing of your spinal canal. When the size of your spinal canal reduces, you have less space in your spinal canal for important things like, for instance, nerves. This can, in turn, cause sustained pressure on your sciatic nerve and thus sciatica.
Although not common, if you have a tumor in your lower spinal canal or somewhere nearby, it can end up placing pressure on your sciatic nerve. This can cause sciatica.
Spondylolisthesis describes a degenerative disk condition. If one of your vertebrae extends over another vertebra as a result of this condition, the extended bone can end up pinching your sciatic nerve, leading to sciatica.
If you experience some kind of traumatic injury to your lower spine or your sciatic nerve, you can experience sciatica as a result. If you have a traumatic incident and begin to experience sciatica immediately afterwards, you should seek medical attention right away. Something shifting out of alignment due to trauma can do permanent damage if not seen to by a doctor.
What Makes Sciatica More Likely?
Although some causes of sciatica are down to random chance or genetics, there are some things that can increase your likelihood of developing sciatica. Not all of these things are easy to change, but being mindful of some of the things that can put your body at risk, especially as you get older, can help you prevent pain down the line.
Because your sciatic nerve is connected to your spine’s health, any additional pressure on your spine can make it more likely that you get sciatica. If you are significantly overweight, the pressure on your spine increases, which can lead to back and spinal problems and thus lead to sciatica.
You’ve probably heard fitness instructors and social media wellness gurus talk about your “core.” By this, they just mean the muscles of your abs and back. There are tons of different activities and exercises you can do to engage your core and strengthen the muscles there. The stronger your core, the more supported your lower back will be, and the less likely you’ll be to end up with sciatica as a result.
If your job includes physical labor, especially heavy lifting, you’re at greater risk of lower back problems, including sciatica. This also applies if you’re a recreational weight lifter.
Sitting Too Much
Spending too much time seated at your desk chair can also cause lower back problems and leave you with sciatica pain.
Diabetes can increase your chances of ending up with nerve damage. If any nerve damage you suffer as a result of diabetes impacts your sciatic nerve, you can end up with sciatica.
Osteoarthritis can lead to damage to your spine. This can impact your sciatic nerve and cause sciatica pain.
Among the many negative impacts of smoking, nicotine can damage your spinal tissue. It can also weaken your bones and ultimately make your vertebral disks wear down faster than they would otherwise. This can cause irreversible sciatica pain.
Sciatica pain can occur temporarily as a result of pregnancy. With all the changes your body undergoes during pregnancy and the way your body shifts, it can place undue pressure on your lumbar region and cause stress on your sciatic nerve.
What Do You Do About Sciatica?
In general, sciatica pain doesn’t tend to last very long. Sciatica tends to go away on its own within as little as a few hours or a few days. Depending on the cause of your sciatica pain, however, your symptoms could come and go for weeks, or even months, forcing you to deal with serious back and leg pain. In addition to seeking the advice of your care provider to make sure you don’t need immediate treatment, there are some things you can do to manage your symptoms and find pain relief.
The Usual Suspects
You can obviously see to sciatica pain with some pretty obvious stand-bys: rest, over-the-counter pain medication like NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), and ice. All of these things can help reduce your symptoms. If ice packs aren’t for you, you could also use heating pads -- although it’s recommended that you use ice for the first couple of days you experience sciatica pain to reduce any swelling or inflammation and switch to heat afterwards. Alternating between hot and cold can also help to ease your symptoms from irritation of the sciatic nerve.
Stretches that focus on your lower back and hips can help you to reduce your sciatica pain. If you’re able, getting a physical therapist might be your best option for developing a routine of stretches that help your sciatica pain without risking injury, but, in general, there are many good resources online to help you identify stretches that will ease the strain on your sciatic nerve if physical therapy isn't an option. These will often focus on your piriformis muscle, as that can contribute to your sciatica.
If you’re interested in yoga, you could also speak to your yoga instructor about stretches that target the areas you need to relax during a sciatica attack -- or even find yoga routines specifically for people who suffer from sciatica. However, we want to note that as great as your yoga instructor may be, they aren’t (or probably aren’t) a doctor, and so proceed with caution when starting any new exercise routine.
Improving Your Posture
Sciatica can sometimes be caused by issues with your spine, which are related to your posture, and sitting for long periods of time can either make sciatica worse or cause it outright. If you spend a lot of time sitting for work or pleasure, being mindful of your posture can help reduce your pain.
If you can’t afford to switch to an ergonomic desk chair, using some sort of coccyx pillow or lumbar pillow -- or even a combination of both -- can help to make your workspace a little more spine-friendly and help to ease your sciatica pain.
Sciatica pain is a relatively common affliction caused by damage to or pressure on the sciatic nerve. Sciatica pain can be mild or severe, and there are a variety of things that can contribute to causing it. Ultimately, the best way to look after and prevent sciatica pain is to look after your spinal health.