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Sciatica Causes

Sciatica is a painful condition caused by nerve damage in the lower back. Find out more about sciatica causes and learn about sciatica treatment.

Nerve compression is a common cause of sciatica. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Nerve compression is a common cause of sciatica.

Sciatica is a painful condition caused by nerve damage or nerve compression in the lower back. Because sciatica usually stems from another medical problem, there are many potential causes of this condition.

The basic symptom of sciatica is pain extending from the lower back down the back of the legs. Other sciatica symptoms include numbness, tingling or burning, and weakness in the same areas.

Symptoms of sciatica can vary, however. They can be severe or mild, long lasting or short term, localized in a single area or radiating down the entire path of the affected nerve.

Sciatica Causes

Sciatica occurs when there is a disorder that affects the sciatic nerve, a major pathway that connects the muscles and tissues of the legs to the spine in the lower back or lumbar region. Many cases of sciatica have no obvious cause, but there are a number of identifiable sciatica triggers as well:

  • A herniated disk: The human spine consists of a column of 26 interlocking bones (or vertebrae) with soft disks in between that cushion the connections and make the spine flexible. If one of these breaks open and the soft material leaks out, it can put pressure on the root of the sciatic nerve, leading to sciatica symptoms. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons , about 1 out of 50 people experience a herniated disk in their lifetime. 
  • Spinal stenosis: One of the spine’s jobs is to serve as a bony shield protecting the spinal cord, which is the bundle of nerves connecting the brain to the rest of the body. Sometimes with age the spine's passageways begin to narrow and put pressure on the nerves. When this occurs in the lumbar region of the spine, it can result in sciatica symptoms.
  • Spondylolisthesis: When one of the bones in the lower spine slips forward over the bone below, it creates a condition called spondylolisthesis. This condition is most commonly associated with a degenerative disease, but it also can result from trauma or physical stress. Spondylolisthesis can sometimes lead to the type of pain associated with sciatica.
  • Piriformis syndrome: This condition occurs when a muscle covering the sciatic nerve tightens or spasms in such a way that it compresses the nerve and causes sciatica symptoms.
  • Trauma: Injuries that involve the thighs or buttocks, like a pelvis fracture or gunshot wound, can damage the sciatic nerve and cause symptoms of sciatica.
  • Tumor: If a spinal tumor develops in the lumbar region, it can impinge on the sciatic nerve and cause sciatica symptoms.

Sciatica Treatment

One of the initial steps in sciatica treatment is to determine the cause of the nerve compression and relieve it if possible. There are also a number of secondary steps that can alleviate the symptoms of sciatica. For example, over-the-counter and prescription pain relievers can combat pain, while physical therapy can help strengthen back muscles. If you are experiencing sciatica symptoms, be sure to see a physician for diagnosis and treatment.

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