Jul 14

Sciatica: A Real Pain in the Butt!


The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body; it originates from nerve roots in the low back and runs the length of the legs into the feet. The sciatic nerve supplies the skin and muscles of the thigh, leg and foot. When the nerve becomes compressed, pain or other sensations such and numbness and tingling may present in the buttock, leg or foot. This is termed “Sciatica” and typically only affects one side of the body at a time.

Sciatica is caused by different types of pressure on the sciatic nerve, some serious and some not so serious. Nerve roots at the spine can become compressed due to a disc hernation or narrowing of the spine canals due to arthritis. Women often experience sciatica when pregnant due to the fetus position and compression on the nerves. Other causes include muscle strains (often from inflammation around the nerve roots) or muscle “spasms.”  Serious causes of sciatica could include a spinal tumor.

The main symptom of sciatica is pain that presents in the low back and radiates into the buttock, leg and/or foot. Some people do not experience pain in the low back but just have leg pain instead. Pain can be felt anywhere along the route of the nerve. Usually people describe the pain as burning, electric shock, sharp/shooting, cramping or a dull ache which can be constant or intermittent. Others may experience numbness/tingling or weakness in the leg. Pain can radiate down the back, side or front of the thigh, leg and foot. For some people, the pain from sciatica can be severe and debilitating. For others, the pain might be infrequent and dull. While symptoms can be very painful, it is rare that permanent nerve damage will result. Symptoms may take anywhere from a few days to months to go away.

webmd_rm_photo_of_lower_back_pain The goal of sciatica treatment is to decrease pain and increase mobility. Treatment often consists of limited rest (in the beginning), physiotherapy and medication to address inflammation and pain. Physiotherapy techniques, modalities and prescribed exercises help to decrease nerve compression and irritability so overall pain subsides and people experience increased mobility. Education about postures, sitting and sleeping positions can also help alleviate discomfort. In rare occasions, spinal injections or surgery may be required with people with chronic sciatica.

Although it might not be possible to prevent all cases of sciatica, you can take steps to protect your back and reduce your risk:

– Practice proper lifting techniques. Lift with your back straight while bending at the hips and knees. Hold the object close to your chest. Use this technique for lifting everything, no matter how light.

Exercise regularly to strengthen the muscles of your back and abdomen, which work to support your spine.

– Use good posture when sitting, standing, and sleeping. Good posture helps to relieve the pressure on your lower back.

Avoid sitting for long periods (greater than 30-60 minutes without a quick stand break)

– Jennifer Smith,  PT

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