Like generalized neck or back pain, sciatica is a symptom that something else is at play. The radiating pain of sciatica is usually an indicator that there is a problem with a nerve, such as a herniated disc.
The sciatic nerve is the nerve that goes through your hips and buttocks and down into your legs. It provides feeling in your legs, feet and thighs. When the nerve is pinched, it can cause the radiating pain that is referred to as sciatica.
In many cases, the root cause of sciatica is a herniated disc, usually in the lower part of the spine. Normally, these discs provide your vertebrae with a cushion so they don’t rub together. If the disc covering tears, some of the gel may leak out and press on the nerve, causing pain.
While a herniated disc is the most common cause of sciatica, you can also experience it if you have spondylolisthesis, lumbar spinal stenosis, piriformis syndrome, a spinal tumor or were in a recent accident that caused trauma.
The pain that radiates from your lower spine into your buttocks and leg can range from a mild ache to a sharp burning sensation. This is the clearest symptom that you have sciatica.
Other signs include muscle weakness or numbness in your leg or foot or a tingling sensation in your toes or part of your foot. If these are accompanied by loss of bladder or bowel control, you should seek medical assistance immediately. It can be a sign of a serious but rare condition known as cauda equina syndrome.
If you are suffering from sciatica, your doctor will first take a complete medical history, followed by a physical exam that includes a close look at your spine and legs. Your doctor may also ask you to do some basic muscle tests to check your reflexes and muscle strength.
If the pain has been present for some time, usually several weeks, your doctor may also order x-rays, an MRI or a CT scan to further assess the issue in order to confirm the root cause of the sciatica.
As noted, sciatica responds well to basic self-care measures, including the use of alternative hot and cold packs, exercise, stretching and non-prescription pain medications.
Depending on the nature and severity of the sciatica, your doctor may also prescribe physical therapy to correct your posture, strengthen back muscles and improve your flexibility.
If the pain is debilitating, prescription anti-inflammatories may be prescribed for short-term pain relief. If the sciatica fails to respond well, steroid injections may be employed. Again, this provides only short-term relief.
Surgery is the last resort. It is most often performed when there are compressed or herniated discs that are pinching the nerve. The type of discectomy (as the procedure is known) performed depends on the location of the disc problem, its severity and the chances of success. Your doctor will go over your options after determining the source of the problem that is causing the sciatica.