Sciatica affects millions of Americans, and it can range from a minor nuisance to a debilitating problem. Despite its pervasiveness, there is still a lot of confusion surrounding the topic. Here are ten quick facts to help get you up to speed.
Learn more: Sciatica: What You Need to Know
- Sciatica describes a set of symptoms. Sciatica is a symptom of an underlying medical condition. The term describes the pain, tingling, numbness, or weakness that starts in the lower back and moves to the large sciatic nerve located in either leg.
- Common underlying conditions differ based on age. For adults under 60, the most common causes of sciatica are a lumbar herniated disc, degenerative disc disease, and isthmic spondylolisthesis. For adults over 60, degenerative changes in the spine like lumbar spinal stenosis and degenerative spondylolisthesis are the typical culprits.
- Location matters. Five nerve roots from your lower back join together to form the large sciatic nerve. Symptoms are typically dictated by which of these 5 nerve roots is pinched or irritated. For example, numbness in the feet is common when the nerve root near the L5 vertebra is pinched.
Pregnancy, scar tissue, muscle strains, and bone fractures can also give rise to sciatica-like symptoms.
See Sciatica Causes
- You may experience multiple symptoms. Several nerve roots can be pinched at the same time, so you might have a mixture of symptoms; for example, you may feel pain or tingling on the outer part of your foot and simultaneously find it hard to straighten your leg.
- Your underlying condition helps determine the treatment plan. One common treatment for sciatica is exercise. However, the specific exercises should be based on your underlying condition. For example, some of the exercises for sciatica caused by lumbar spinal stenosis are the opposite for exercises for similar symptoms caused by a herniated disc.
- Multiple terms can refer to the same thing. The medical term for sciatica is lumbar radiculopathy, and sciatica can also be referred to as pinched or compressed nerve pain. It may be confusing if you hear these terms used interchangeably, but don't worry—they are not different diagnoses.
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- Long-term results of surgery and nonsurgical treatment are similar. Quicker pain relief is associated with surgery, but after one year both surgical and nonsurgical approaches produce similar outcomes.
- Certain symptoms require immediate medical attention. Rarely, sciatica symptoms may require immediate surgery. As a general rule, if you have worsening neurological symptoms, if neurological symptoms occur in both legs, if you have bladder or bowel incontinence, or if symptoms occur after an accident or trauma you should seek immediate medical attention.
- Other conditions mimic sciatica. Sciatica is often used as a catch-all term by patients to refer to any pain they feel in their legs. However, your leg pain may not be sciatica as there are numerous causes of leg pain outside of lower-back nerve irritation. For example, a problem with the piriformis muscle or with the sacroiliac joint can cause pain that travels down the leg and feels like sciatica.
- Relief typically comes quickly. Most people who experience sciatica find relief from their symptoms within 6 to 12 weeks and will not need to consider surgery. Things that you can do to help ease sciatic pain include application of ice and/or heat, gentle stretching, and low-impact aerobic conditioning—like walking—as tolerated.
If your sciatic pain is severe, a personalized treatment plan will typically help you find quicker relief and help prevent any future flare-ups.