Sciatica is the term used to describe nerve pain in the buttocks, legs, and feet. It is caused when the sciatic nerve – the longest nerve in the body – becomes compressed or irritated. If you’re suffering from pain that radiates down the back of your leg and into your feet, it could be sciatica.
What is the Sciatic Nerve?
The sciatic nerve starts at the lower spine before running through the buttock, down the back of the thigh and into the foot. It’s an important nerve that sends signals from the spinal cord to the entire lower body.
Because of its location and length, the sciatic nerve has a variety of functions. That’s why sciatica can result in pain throughout the entire lower body, and can even lead to coughing, sneezing and muscle contractions.
What Causes Sciatica?
There are a number of potential causes for a compressed or irritated sciatic nerve. Some of the most common include:
- Slipped disc. If the outer casing of a disc in your spine becomes herniated, the interior of the disc bulges more than it should. This can lead to compression of the sciatic nerve, resulting in pain and discomfort.
- Spinal injury. If you injure your spine or the muscles that support the spine, inflammation can press on the sciatic nerve.
- Spinal stenosis. Sometimes the passage holding the spinal cord can become narrowed – often due to large ligaments. In some cases, this can cause compression on the sciatic nerve. Spinal stenosis often results in pain in the lower back.
- This is a condition where a vertebra moves more than it should. It can either be caused by aging or repeatedly bending the spine in an unnatural way.
- Spinal infection. This is less common but is a potential cause of sciatic pain.
The amount of pain, loss of sensation or tingling can vary depending on how much the nerve has been compressed or irritated. The location of the nerve compression can also affect where the pain radiates.
How is Sciatica Treated?
Each cause of sciatica requires a specific treatment plan to effectively reduce compression on the sciatic nerve and eliminate pain.
Traditional treatment for sciatica usually involves a combination of pain-killing medications and rest. This can sometimes be effective at reducing pain in the short-term. The problem is that it only treats the symptoms of sciatica, meaning the pain often returns at a later date.
Physiotherapy exercises are another common treatment. Unlike pain-killing medication, these exercises treat the underlying problem – but it’s vital that the right exercises are performed for a specific cause of sciatica. The wrong exercises can worsen pain and increase the time taken for recovery.
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