What are the symptoms of sciatica?
Sciatica usually only affects one leg at a time, and can cause symptoms such as:
- sharp pain
- severe cramps
- sharp, electrical pain or stinging
- dull, throbbing ache
- weakness or numbness
- discomfort that is exacerbated by coughing or sneezing
Discomfort can become exacerbated when lying down, sitting in certain positions or standing, and can sometimes be temporarily relieved by bending the leg up toward the chest.
What are the causes of sciatica?
The most common cause of sciatica is a herniated disc, a condition that causes the gel-like interior of the disc to ooze out and press against the nerves in the spine. This gel also contains compounds that can irritate and inflame nerves if they come in contact with it.
How is sciatica diagnosed?
Sciatica can be diagnosed with a comprehensive evaluation by an experienced doctor. Your doctor will ask about when and how your pain started and what you were doing when you first noticed the pain, as well as the activities that cause the pain to flare up. You’ll also be asked about your physical activity level and work habits as well as any personal or family history of back pain.
During the exam, the doctor may ask you to walk on your toes or your heels, to squat down, to bend over or to lie down and raise your legs one at a time. Other tests can also be used to help pinpoint the source of the pain. In some cases, the doctor may order an MRI or other diagnostic imaging test to confirm a diagnosis.
How is sciatica treated?
In many cases, sciatica will resolve on its own with rest, but in some cases these treatment options can help:
- anti-inflammatory medications
- application of hot or cold compresses to the lower back
- injections of corticosteroids to relieve pain and inflammation
- regular, gentle exercise like walking and stretching
Staying active is important. Moving improves circulation which reduces inflammation and speeds healing.
In a very few cases, surgical treatment may be necessary relieve pain. The most common surgery used to treat persistent sciatica is removal of the herniated portion of the disc to relieve pressure on the nerves.
What can I do to prevent sciatica from recurring?
Some people experience sciatica just once in their lifetimes, while others may have symptoms that recur several times. The best way to prevent sciatica from recurring is to follow these three simple tips:
- Sit up straight. Especially if your job requires long periods of sitting, it’s important to maintain good posture to relieve uneven pressures on the spine that can contribute to disc herniation. Use a rolled-up towel to preserve the curve in your lower back.
- Give your back a break. When lifting objects, use your leg muscles rather than your back to prevent strain. When standing for long periods, relieve pressure on your back muscles by resting your foot on a stool or other raised surface.
- Get plenty of exercise. Keeping the muscles in your abdomen and lower back strong and flexible is the best thing you can do to avoid sciatica.