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What is sciatica?

Sciatica is a term that refers to pain that runs along the sciatic nerve.

Sciatica can cause pain and tingling in the legs. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Sciatica can cause pain and tingling in the legs.

Sciatica is not a disease or disorder. The word sciatica is actually a description of a specific type of pain with a number of potential causes. In this way it's similar to the word headache, which describes a pattern of symptoms that can be caused by any number of things.

Sciatica is a sensation – usually painful – that follows the path of a major nerve that starts in the lower back and travels down the back of each leg.

Other sciatica symptoms include:

  • Numbness or decreased feeling in the legs or feet
  • Tingling or burning sensations in the legs or feet
  • Weakness in the legs or feet

These symptoms can be mild or acute, and they may be worsened by sitting for long periods.

Causes of Sciatica

Sciatica occurs when there is pressure on or damage to the sciatic nerve, which extends from the lower part of your spine down the back of each leg. The condition has a number of potential causes.

Disorders affecting the spine can cause sciatica. For example, a herniated disk in the lower spine can put pressure on the sciatic nerve. If one of the bones in the lower spine slips slightly over the bone below it – a condition called spondylolisthesis – sciatica symptoms can occur.

Another disorder, called piriformis syndrome, occurs when the muscle covering the upper part of the sciatic nerve begins to spasm or tighten. This can create pressure on the sciatic nerve and cause sciatica symptoms.

Sciatica also can be caused by an injury affecting the sciatic nerve, or by spinal tumors that put pressure on the nerve.

There are also cases of sciatica that do not have any obvious cause at all.

Sciatica Treatment

Treatment for sciatica depends on the disorder ultimately causing the symptoms. But there are also a number of steps one can easily take to alleviate pain associated with sciatica.

Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help for mild-to-moderate pain. Some over-the-counter pain relievers like naproxen and ibuprofen are in a category of drugs called NSAIDs, or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. They can reduce swelling and inflammation and lessen the pain of sciatica.

Careful stretching and low-impact exercise also can help relieve pain and strengthen back muscles. A physical therapist or fitness trainer may be needed to ensure proper technique.

Using a cold or hot compress can also help to decrease inflammation and relax the muscles, while chiropractors and masseurs may be able to provide some relief from ongoing sciatica that has no apparent cause.

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