If you have ever experienced pain, tingling, and/or numbness along your sciatic nerve, you have likely heard the terms sciatica and piriformis syndrome.
These two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but are piriformis syndrome and sciatica the same thing?
Parsing the terms
First, let's take a quick look at the definition of sciatica. Sciatica is not a medical diagnosis, but rather refers to pain, tingling, and/or numbness felt along your sciatic nerve. Additionally, the technical term for sciatica is lumbar radiculopathy, which helps to make clear that sciatica symptoms are caused by a problem in your lumbar spine (lower back). For example, a lumbar herniated disc may irritate one of the five sciatic nerve roots that comprise your sciatic nerve, which in turn sends symptoms shooting down your sciatic nerve.
In contrast, piriformis syndrome refers only to when your piriformis muscle irritates your sciatic nerve. Additionally, your piriformis muscle is not located in your lumbar spine, but rather in your buttock. Therefore, strictly speaking, piriformis syndrome is not the same thing as sciatica (lumbar radiculopathy).
Treatment of sciatica and piriformis syndrome
At this point, you may be wondering "Why should I care about what term is used?" The answer to this question is that your treatment plan typically needs to address the underlying cause of whatever is irritating or compressing your sciatic nerve (or nerve roots).
So then, your treatment plan for your piriformis syndrome may differ significantly from a treatment plan for someone suffering from sciatica from a lumbar spine problem (like a lumbar herniated disc). Moreover, you may actually make your symptoms worse if you perform a stretch intended for piriformis syndrome if you have a lumbar herniated disc. Therefore, it is essential to have the underlying cause of the pain, tingling, and/or numbness along your sciatic nerve properly diagnosed.
It is important to remember that you and your doctor are a team. So if you are confused by any terms she or he may be using, feel free to speak up. The more you work together the better chance you have of finding an effective treatment plan for your sciatica or piriformis syndrome.