Sciatica is an inflammation of the sciatic nerve, the longest nerve in the body. The sciatic nerve stretches from the spinal cord to the end of each leg and may become inflamed for a number of reasons, including age-related changes in the spine, obesity, or a sedentary lifestyle. Sciatica usually develops gradually as the nerve is compressed over time. This results in pain along the nerve pathway, as well as numbness, tingling and muscle weakness in the affected area.
Causes of Sciatica
The compression of the sciatic nerve is usually the result of a herniated disc or spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal often caused by a bone spur. Other causes of sciatica may include:
- Piriformis syndrome, a muscle disorder
- Nerve damage from diabetes
- Pelvic injury
Since a sedentary lifestyle contributes to sciatic problems, individuals whose occupations require prolonged sitting, extensive driving or frequent air travel are at greater risk of developing the disorder.
Symptoms of Sciatica
The most common symptom of sciatica is pain that radiates from the lumbar (lower) region of the spine into the buttock and down the back of the leg. At times, the sole of the foot may be affected. Patients with this condition may experience a variety of sensations in the region, including tingling, burning, numbness or jolts of acute pain. Discomfort may increase with sudden movement, such as occurs during sneezing or coughing, or upon standing after an extended period of sitting.
When the symptoms of sciatica set in suddenly, as may happen after an accident, or when the patient has difficulty controlling the bladder or bowels, immediate medical attention should be sought.
Treatment of Sciatica
Sciatica, once it has been diagnosed through physical examination and imaging tests, can often be successfully treated with rest, ice packs, physical therapy and over-the-counter pain medications. Anti-inflammatory corticosteroid injections may also be administered. Although in most instances, sciatica resolves in 6 to 8 weeks, a patient may have repeated bouts of the disorder. Such flare-ups can sometimes be prevented through the maintenance of a regimen of regular exercise.