Often, the term “Sciatica” is confused with general back pain. The pain is however, in reality, not confined to the back. Sciatica is usually caused by a compressed nerve in the lower spine, called the sciatic nerve.
The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in the human body. It runs from the lower back, through the buttocks, and then down the legs ending just below the knee. Therefore the pain it causes when it is pinched will reach the lower back, the buttocks, and the leg eventually.
How does the sciatic nerve get compressed?
It most commonly occurs when a herniated disk, bone spur on the spine, or spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spine) compresses part of the nerve. This causes inflammation, pain and often some numbness in the affected areas, ranging from your back to your leg.
How painful is sciatica?
Sciatica can cause a whole lot of pain and irritation to the person who experiences it. However, it can range from a mild ache to a severe one depending from person to person, since there is no hard and fast rule.
As sciatica affects your lumbar spine, the muscles that may spasm following nerve damage are the large, postural back muscles. Because these muscles are so large, you’ll feel them when they spasm. This increases the discomfort you already may be feeling.
Nerve pain is among the most intense types of pain. It elicits imagery of electric shock, searing heat, and lightning bolt-like shooting sensations. And, the most feared type of spinal nerve damage is arguably the low back/leg pain of sciatica.
If the symptoms of sciatica are mild and do not last longer than 4-8 weeks, it is probably acute sciatica, and medical attention is not usually necessary. If it persists, it will be classified as chronic sciatica.
How can you get relief from pain?
One of the tried and tested techniques is, lift your left leg and place your right ankle on top of the left knee. Hold the position for a moment. This helps stretch the tiny piriformis muscle, which may be inflamed and presses against the sciatic nerve, causing pain. Do the same exercise with the other leg. This activity will give you temporary relief.
Use over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen, aspirin, or NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen [Advil, Motrin], ketoprofen, or naproxen [Aleve]) for further pain relief. Keep in mind, it is absolutely essential to consult your doctor before taking any medications.
Antidepressants for chronic low back pain are necessary.
Alternating heat and ice therapy can provide immediate relief of sciatic nerve pain. Ice can help reduce inflammation, while heat encourages blood flow to the painful area. Heat and ice may also help ease painful muscle spasms that accompany sciatica. Muscle relaxants to ease muscle spasms will help.
Your symptoms might lead you to believe otherwise, but walking is typically better for your sciatica than bed rest. Walking alleviates sciatic pain by stimulating the release of endorphins into your system.
In many cases sciatica goes away within a few weeks using conservative treatment methods. However, this is not the case for all patients. For some, sciatica can last much longer, even for several months.
In most cases it is self-limiting, meaning it goes away on its own.
Often during an episode of sciatica, the common response is to go on bed rest. When your pain improves, you can start to introduce gentle stretching exercises that can help relieve pressure off the compressed nerve.
Minimally invasive surgery for sciatica usually means faster recovery, but if the surgery involves more than one vertebra or disc, your back may take longer to heal.
Not getting it treated can also lead to paralysis.
Tips to remember
Sit up straight, all the way back in your chair so your back and buttocks are supported, rather than sitting towards the front of your chair. Sit with both feet flat on the floor, not just your toes. Don’t cross your legs or lean to one side. Keep your knees even with your hips, or even slightly elevated.
A large percentage, an estimated 80%, of sciatica patients with displaced disks get better without surgery.
On the other hand, if your sciatic pain is incapacitating, as it often can be, then surgery is a choice.