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Sciatica—Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

 

Sciatica is not a medical condition, but rather, it refers to a specific set of symptoms that stem from compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It runs from each side of the lumbar spine through the hip and buttocks area, down the back of each leg all the way to your feet.

 

The term “sciatica” is often used as a catch-all name for leg pain.

Symptoms of Sciatica

People with sciatica typically experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Burning or tingling down the leg
  • Weakness, numbness, or difficulty moving the leg or foot
  • A constant pain on one side of the buttocks
  • A shooting pain that makes it difficult to stand up
  • Pain in the buttocks or leg that is worse when sitting

Causes of Sciatica

Several underlying medical conditions can cause sciatic pain. They include:

  • Lumbar herniated disc—The most common cause of sciatica. A herniated disc can occur when the gel-like center of the disk protrudes into or through the disk’s outer lining. This can pinch the nerves in the lower back or cause compression of the sciatic nerve itself.
  • Lumbar spinal stenosis—A narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back that causes nerves to become compressed.
  • Degenerative disc disease—A breakdown of vertebral discs, which act as cushions between the vertebrae.
  • Spondylolisthesis—A condition in which one vertebra slips forward over another.

Sciatica Treatment

Sciatic nerve pain is typically treated by managing the pain and addressing the underlying medical condition that’s causing your symptoms. Depending on your condition, your doctor may prescribe one or all of the following:

  • Medications
  • Physical Therapy
  • Rest
  • Surgery

Sciatica and Lumbar Spinal Stenosis

Because “sicatica” is often used as a catch-all term for leg pain, you may have heard your doctor use it to refer to your lumbar spinal stenosis symptoms. Lumbar spinal stenosis refers to a narrowing of the spinal canal. While it can result in sciatica, it’s possible to have sciatica without the presence of lumbar spinal stenosis.

 

One way to tell whether your sciatic pain is caused by lumbar spinal stenosis is to pay attention to when you feel the most pain:

 

  • People with lumbar spinal stenosis typically feel more pain when they are standing, because the back is in extension, and they get relief from symptoms by sitting or leaning forward.
  • People with a herniated disc typically experience symptoms while sitting, and they get relief from symptoms when standing.

Treating Sciatic Pain Caused by Lumbar Spinal Stenosis.

If your sciatica is caused by lumbar spinal stenosis, your doctor may begin with more conservative treatments, such as pain medications and physical therapy.

 

If these treatments don’t relieve your pain for a sustained period of time, your doctor may suggest surgery as a way to provide sustained relief.

 

Some lumbar spinal stenosis surgeries are more invasive than others:

How Sciatica is Diagnosed

There are several conditions that can cause hip and thigh pain, and only your doctor can determine whether you’re experiencing the symptoms of sciatica. Identifying the underlying cause of your sciatic pain is crucial to determining the proper treatment plan.

 

To diagnose your symptoms and determine the cause, your doctor may do any of the following:

  • Discuss your medical history.
  • Perform a physical exam.
  • Perform a straight-leg test, which is used to diagnose a herniated disk, the most common cause of sciatica.
  • Test several specific functions of the nerve.
  • Take X-rays or an MRI.

Sciatica and Radiculopathy

Sciatica can also be referred to as a “radiculopathy,” which simply means that the symptoms you are experiencing stem from a problem with the nerve root. In the case of sciatica, the sciatic nerve root has become irritated or compressed. Learn more about radiculopathy.

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