Sciatica - pain along the large sciatic nerve that runs from the lower back down the back of each leg - is relatively common. Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve is irritated or compressed by a problem in the low back, thus sending pain from the sciatic nerve down to the buttock and sometimes down the back of the leg. Severity of sciatic pain can range from infrequent and irritating to severe and debilitating, experienced as a shooting pain or a constant pain, usually most painful in the leg, which gets worse when sitting.
However, the term sciatica is often misused, and patients may try to self-diagnose and self-treat the wrong cause of their sciatica.
Many conditions feel like sciatica, but are treated differently
Sciatica is often referred to as any type of leg pain, but in fact there are many causes of leg pain that are not classified as sciatica and need to be treated differently.
However, many other problems can also cause pain down the leg, including:
- Joint problems, such as arthritis, can also refer pain from the joints into the leg, but this is not sciatica and the treatment is different. For arthritis, the focus is on nonsurgical treatments that preserve motion and reduce pain long term and usually include prescribing anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce joint inflammation.
- Another cause of leg pain that can feel like sciatic pain is sacroiliac joint dysfunction. This cause of lower back and leg pain is relatively common. Too much or too little motion in the sacroiliac joint can cause pain that radiates down the leg and feels like sciatica. Treatment is usually non-surgical and focuses on restoring normal motion in the joint.
- There is a muscle in the buttock that can cause pain to radiate along the sciatic nerve into the leg. Again, this type of pain is technically not sciatica. Treatment usually includes anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy.
Sciatica is difficult, and potentially dangerous, to self-diagnose
Given the multitude of conditions that can cause sciatic pain, it is imperative to meet with a doctor for the appropriate diagnosis. While rare, sciatic pain can be caused by serious conditions. For example, all of the following serious conditions may cause sciatica-type symptoms:
While The vast majority of causes of sciatica are not serious, it is advisable for anyone experiencing sciatic nerve pain to see his or her doctor for a correct diagnosis and the right set of treatment options.
- See Sciatica Causes
The most common causes of sciatica in younger adults tend to be lumbar herniated disc, degenerative disc disease, or spondylolisthesis. In older adults, the most common causes tend to be degenerative changes in the spine, such as lumbar spinal stenosis or degenerative spondylolisthesis.
Bottom line: get a diagnosis
If you feel symptoms of buttock pain, leg pain, or numbness, tingling or other neurological symptoms in your leg, it is important to see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis of the cause of your symptoms. Treatment options will be determined based on the clinical diagnosis.
Also, make sure that a controlled and progressive exercise and physical rehabilitation program are part of your treatment. Without it, your symptoms are likely to get worse over time. With doing the right types of exercises, and doing them correctly, both your immediate and your longer term prospects for living without sciatica are much improved.