Sciatica is the name given to any sort of pain caused by irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve, which runs from the back of the pelvis, through the behind and down both legs, ending at the feet. If you suffer with sciatica, here are some self-help tips and treatment ideas.
Signs and symptoms
While some people with sciatica report only mild discomfort, numbness or tingling, others can experience severe pain (often exacerbated by sneezing, coughing, or sitting for long periods of time), which can also result in muscle weakness in the affected leg. While it does affect the back, sciatica is typically associated with pain in the buttocks and legs.
Causes of sciatica
A slipped disk pressing on the nerve is the most common cause of sciatica. In rarer cases, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the nerve passages in the spine), infection, a spinal injury or a tumour within the spine can be the cause.
When to see your GP
Sciatic pain often goes away of its own accord after two to six weeks, but it can persist for a year or more. If your symptoms are severe or persistent, or get worse over time, see your GP. If you experience loss of sensation between your legs and around your buttocks and/or loss of bladder or bowel control, dial 999 for an ambulance. Although rare, these symptoms can be a sign of a serious condition called cauda equina syndrome.
Although most cases of sciatica will pass in around six weeks without the need for treatment, there are things you can do at home. Over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, can help relieve the pain. Applying hot or cold packs on the painful area may also help. Try wrapping a pack of frozen peas in a tea towel and using a hot water bottle.
Doctors advise those with sciatica to stay as physically active as possible. Gentle exercises, such as walking and stretching, can help reduce the severity of your symptoms and strengthen the muscles that support the back. Although bed rest can provide temporary relief from pain, prolonged bed rest is often considered unhelpful.
If your symptoms are persistent and other methods of pain relief have not worked, your GP may refer you to a specialist for a spinal corticosteroid and/or local anaesthetic injection. Delivered directly to the spine, these help reduce inflammation and relieve pain to the area affected.
Your doctor may also suggest you follow a structured exercise programme under the supervision of a physiotherapist, who can also advise you how to improve your posture and reduce any future strain on your back.
Very occasionally, spinal surgery may be needed to correct a problem. Surgery is most likely to be considered if the condition has an identifiable cause, such as a herniated or "slipped" disc, the symptoms have not responded to other forms of treatment, or the symptoms are getting worse.
Before deciding to have spinal surgery, your surgeon will discuss the relative risks and benefits with you.
Have you suffered with sciatica? What advice would you give to others? Leave your comments below...