What Is Sciatica?
The sciatic nerve runs along the back of the body from the top of the buttocks to the ankle. When compressed or pinched, the nerve can cause pain, numbness and weakness over a large area of the lower body, resulting in sciatica.
Though sciatica can happen to anyone for no obvious reason, primary causes include:
- A slipped (herniated) disk — The soft cushion between vertebrae bulges out from its protective covering and presses on the base of the sciatic nerve.
- Injury — A violent impact can cause the spinal bones to shift out of place.
- Spinal stenosis — This condition causes the space inside the spine to narrow and pinch the sciatic nerve root.
Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include:
- Numbness or tingling — An irritated sciatic nerve may produce a prickling, burning or pins-and-needles sensation.
- Pain — Pressure on the sciatic nerve causes aching, stabbing or throbbing pain that begins in the lower back and radiates down the leg.
- Weakness — An affected leg or foot may feel unstable and about to “give out.”
Treatment for sciatica depends on the underlying cause and severity of symptoms. Options include:
- Injections — Epidural steroid injections reduce inflammation and help alleviate pain.
- Medications — Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories relieve pain, while muscle relaxants ease spasms.
- Physical therapy — Exercises to stretch and strengthen the spinal column and its supporting muscles and connective tissue help prevent sciatica flare-ups.
- Rest, ice and/or heat — A day or two of rest is beneficial, but prolonged inactivity can make symptoms worse. Alternating ice packs and mild heat helps relieve acute pain.
- Surgery — For persistent or severe sciatica, surgery may be needed to repair a herniated disk or remove bone that pinches the sciatic nerve.
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