Sciatica refers to pain, weakness, numbness, or tingling in the leg. It is caused by injury to or compression of the sciatic nerve. Sciatica is a symptom of another medical problem, not a medical condition on its own.
Sciatica occurs when there is pressure or damage to the sciatic nerve. This nerve starts in the spine and runs down the back of each leg. This nerve controls the muscles of the back of the knee and lower leg and provides sensation to the back of the thigh, part of the lower leg, and the sole of the foot. Common causes of sciatica include:
- Piriformis syndrome (a pain disorder involving the narrow piriformis muscle in the buttocks)
- Slipped disk
- Degenerative disk disease
- Spinal stenosis
- Pelvic injury or fracture
Sciatica pain can vary widely. It may feel like a mild tingling, dull ache, or a burning sensation. In some cases, the pain is severe enough to make a person unable to move. The pain most often occurs on one side. Some people have sharp pain in one part of the leg or hip and numbness in other parts. The sensations may also be felt on the back of the calf or on the sole of the foot. The affected leg may feel weak. The pain often starts slowly. Sciatica pain may get worse:
- After standing or sitting
- At night
- When sneezing, coughing, or laughing
- When bending backwards or walking more than a few yards, especially if caused by spinal stenosis
Because sciatica is a symptom of another medical condition, the underlying cause should be identified and treated. In some cases, no treatment is required and recovery occurs on its own. Conservative treatment is best in many cases. Your doctor may recommend the following steps to calm your symptoms and reduce inflammation.
- Apply heat or ice to the painful area. Try ice for the first 48 – 72 hours, then use heat after that.
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
- While sleeping, try lying in a curled-up, fetal position with a pillow between your legs. If you usually sleep on your back, place a pillow or rolled towel under your knees to relieve pressure.
If at-home measures do not help, your doctor may recommend injections to reduce inflammation around the nerve. Other medicines may be prescribed to help reduce the stabbing pains associated with sciatica. Physical therapy exercises may also be recommended. Additional treatments depend on the condition that is causing the sciatica. Nerve pain is very difficult to treat. If you have ongoing problems with pain, you may want to see a neurologist or a pain specialist to ensure that you have access to the widest range of treatment options.