Sciatica is an inflammation or compression of the sciatic nerve that causes sharp pain in the low back and buttocks that radiates down the leg. Sciatica generally occurs on one side of the body. The condition is more common in people over age 40 with degenerative spinal conditions such as a herniated disc or lumbar spinal stenosis. Sciatica in younger people is usually the result of a sports-related injury or trauma caused by an accident.
Symptoms of Sciatica
- Pain in the low back
- Hip pain on one side
- Pain on one side of the buttocks
- Sharp or burning pain that travels down one leg
- Numbness, tingling, or weakness in one leg or foot
- Age – perhaps the biggest risk factor. People may experience age-related changes to their spinal discs, a narrowing of the spinal canal, and osteoarthritis of the facet joints.
- Obesity – Excess body weight puts a lot of pressure and strain on the back muscles. Overweight individuals tend to exercise less and sit for longer periods, which increases their risk for sciatica.
- Occupation – Those whose jobs involve heavy lifting, bending, twisting, or prolonged standing or sitting have greater risk of developing sciatica. People with exposure to whole-body vibration, such as machine operators, may also be at risk.
Conservative (Non-surgical) Treatments
Many cases of sciatica will improve with non-operative treatments. Ice or cold packs can reduce pain and swelling during the first few days. After several days of cold treatments, the patient can switch to heating pads, or alternate between cold and hot treatments to relieve pain. Over-the-counter medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), can reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation. Options include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium. Gentle stretching exercises and walking can reduce pressure on the sciatic nerve. These self-treatments can be done at home.
If sciatica symptoms do not improve in a few weeks, or if the pain is severe, it may be time to see a doctor. A medical provider can give prescription pain medications or muscle relaxers that may help. Spinal injections of corticosteroids may provide relief from severe or debilitating pain. Physical therapy may be recommended to help the patient build strength and flexibility and promote healing. Such therapies may include electrical stimulation, ultrasound, and hydrotherapy (water).