What is Sciatica?

Many people claim they have sciatica but what exactly is sciatica? And how different is it from back pain?

Sciatica gets it origin from the sciatic nerve which runs from the lower mid back to the back of the leg. It is the longest and probably the biggest nerve in the body. The term sciatica essentially means that there is pain radiating from your spine to the back of the legs. Whenever back pain radiates to the back of the legs, the term sciatica is used. Sciatica is not a diagnosis but just a symptom. In the majority of cases, the cause of sciatica is a herniated disk- meaning that the nerve is being pinched by the bones in the spinal column.


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The majority of individuals will complain of sudden sharp pain shooting from the mid back into the back of the thigh. This pain may radiate all the way below the back of the knee and end at the ankle. The pain is quite intense and uncomfortable. At the first sign of sciatica, most individuals will be disabled. The farther down the leg that the pain goes, the more severe the situation is.

The pain of sciatica is generally worsened with any posture or condition that compresses the nerve. Sitting on a chair or lifting weights can worsen the pain.

Besides pain, some individuals may complain of numbness at the back of the calf or foot. In other cases, the numbness may alternate with the pain.

When sciatica is severe, one may even have loss of bladder or bowel control. This is an acute emergency often known as cauda equina syndrome. These individuals need emergency care in a hospital setting. At this stage the vertebral column has completely compressed the nerve and one needs to get urgent relief with some type of surgery.

Causes of Sciatica pain

Causes of sciatica include damage to the joint, daily wear and tear, muscle spasms, cartilage damage, tendon and ligament tears, herniation of the disc or a fracture of the joint. Even though herniated disc is one of the most common causes of sciatica, there are other causes that can cause similar symptoms.

Lumbar spinal stenosis is essentially narrowing of a segment of the spine. The narrowing is usually in the lower back and often compresses the nerve that exits the spinal cord. In most cases only one side of the body may be affected.
Spondylolisthesis occurs when one vertebra slips slightly forward over another vertebra. The displaced bone fragment can then pinch or compress the sciatic nerve when it exist the spine.
Piriformis syndrome is a rare disorder when one of the muscles in the lower back goes into spasms and compresses the sciatic nerve. Piriformis syndrome can occur from prolonged sitting, motor vehicle accidents and traumatic falls.
Trauma is a common cause of lumbar pain. The injury may lead to fractures or sprain which can injure the lumbar nerves.

Most people who develop sciatica are in their 20’s and 30’s, over weight or deconditioned lift weights or have trauma to their back. The pain from lumbar spine can vary in intensity. In some cases it may be mild and localized but in others it can be very painful and may feel like an electrical jolt. Often the pain can be worsened by sitting for too long in one position, sneezing, coughing or sleeping on the stomach.

Besides pain, other features of lumbar spine disease include numbness or muscle weakness along the path of the nerve. Other individuals may feel tingling or a sensation of pins and needles in the back of the leg and foot. If the nerve compression is serious, it can also lead to bowel and bladder incontinence.