The widest and longest nerves in the body, a sciatic nerve runs from the lower back, through the buttocks, and down each leg before ending just below the knees. These nerves control the muscles in the lower legs and supply sensation to your feet. Sciatica is the medical term used to describe the pain resulting from the irritation of one of these nerves. The pain can range from mild to severe. It is estimated that 40 percent of people will experience this type of pain at least once in their lifetime. Sciatica is not a medical condition and should not be confused with back pain. It is a symptom of an underlying problem.
Causes of Sciatic Nerve Irritation
The irritation of the nerve is most often caused by the compression of the nerve in the lower spine because of a slipped, or herniated, disk. Made from cartilage, a disk acts as a cushion between vertebras. When the disk is pushed out of place, it can exert pressure on the sciatic nerve. Another cause of nerve irritation is lumbar spinal stenosis, which is the narrowing of the spine in the lower back. Spondylolisthesis is a condition in which the disk slips over the vertebra below it. Cauda equina syndrome is a severe manifestation of this problem. A condition affecting the nerves in the lower spinal column, it may irritate the nerve. An infection, an injury to the spine or a tumor within the spinal column may also compress the nerve and cause pain. Pregnancy or a muscle spasm in the lower back can cause the pain sensation as well.
The treatment recommended for patients is determined by the underlying cause. A combination of techniques usually provides the best result. Along with bed rest, some cases of mild sciatic will respond to self-care measures that include walking and stretching exercises as well as alternating hot and cold compresses. Lower back conditioning exercise may also help. While mild cases typically resolve within a few weeks, it can last much longer in some cases.
Treating chronic sciatica will usually involve a combination of self-care and physical therapy. The physical rehabilitation program will include exercises to improve your posture, strengthen your lower back muscles and improve flexibility. Alternative medical practices can also reduce pressure on the nerve and control muscle spasms. These include chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, and massage therapy. In the most severe cases, surgery may be required.
If you are suffering from back pain, it is important to see your physician for an examination to determine the underlying cause. Establishing the correct diagnosis is the critical first step in determining the best treatment option that will prevent further problems. The sooner you begin treatment, the quicker you can get relief from the pain and improve your quality of life.