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What Everyone Should Know About Sciatica

Dr. Anand Blog

February 1st, 2018

It can seemingly come out of nowhere – this sensation of zapping pain that travels from your lower back down one leg, leaving you stunned. If you're like many Americans, you've experienced this sensation known as "sciatica" at least once in your adult life. It's fairly unforgettable. But what you may not know is that the term sciatica is more or less a description of the pain and sensation you're feeling, not a diagnosis itself. But no matter what you call it, understanding why it happens and what you can do to prevent it are important tools you can use.

What Everyone Should Know About Sciatica

Of the more than 43 pairs of nerves in the human body, the sciatic nerve is the largest. Once it exits the spine, it travels through the buttock and along the back side of the leg, where it then divides into three branches. These nerve branches provide our lower extremities with their strength and sensation.

The majority of sciatica cases are caused by nerve compression, the most common being herniated discs in the low back. Though disc herniation in this part of the spine is quite common, only 5 percent of the time will it cause the symptoms associated with sciatica. These symptoms can occur anywhere along the pathway of the sciatic nerve and may include pain, numbness, tingling and muscle weakness. For most people experiencing sciatica, the pain is often described as sharp, searing, electric-like or shooting.

Though it is frequently believed that sciatica is a side effect of aging, it can actually occur in people of all ages. People in their 20s can experience it, and the peak age at which sciatica occurs as a result of disc herniation is in the 40s to 50s. In addition, men are up to three times more likely to suffer sciatica episodes than women.

Doctors often require some type of imaging examination to get to the bottom of sciatica symptoms that haven't resolved on their own by the three-month mark. The purpose of these exams is to connect the symptoms the patient is experiencing with something on the imaging exam that helps us identify why. However, it's important to note that it isn't always possible to identify the exact source of sciatica symptoms, which can be frustrating for many sufferers. But the good news is that most cases will resolve within three months or less with conservative treatments. Most causes of sciatica won't require surgery to correct the underlying problem.

So what do you do to spell relief from sciatica pain? There are a number of things that can be beneficial. First, while you might feel relief from resting a day or so after a particularly intense sciatica episode, a multitude of research now shows that prolonged inactivity or bed rest can actually end up making your symptoms worse. So keep moving. Of course, it might be a good idea to modify your lifestyle and temporarily refrain from certain activities that you know tend to bring on the pain. Other at-home care strategies can also include heat/ice therapy on the affected area, gentle stretching exercises that avoid twisting, jerking or bouncing, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen.

While it's important to know what to do when a sciatica episode strikes, there are also some things you can do to prevent one from occurring in the first place. Exercise regularly to help keep your spine strong, maintain good posture while you're in a seated position and use good body mechanics if you stand for long periods or do a lot of heavy lifting for work. Though it's impossible to completely eliminate your sciatica risk, understanding that a painful episode is likely short-lived can go a long way to putting your mind at ease when one decides to strike.

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