Also known as sciatica, sciatic nerve pain refers to sharp and intense pain that radiates between the legs and the lower back area. Such pain is caused due to irritation of the sciatic nerve which is the longest nerve in the body. The nerve starts in the lower back area, passes via the back of the thigh, and ends at the lower limbs. Individuals aged between 30 and 50 years are more susceptible to suffering from sciatic nerve pain.
Treatment involves medications, physical therapy, exercising, home remedies, rest, and/or surgery.
Symptoms of sciatic nerve pain
Some of the signs and symptoms of sciatic nerve pain are listed below:
- Irritating and sporadic pain in the lower back that spreads to the thigh and the lower limb is the most common symptom. Such pain tends to deteriorate with time.
- The pain may be mild in some patients, while it can be debilitating and excruciating in others. In some cases, severe pain can limit motion or movements. Incapacitating pain is more prevalent if there is severe damage of the nerve.
- The pain may affect any one side of the lower back area and limbs. Some patients may also experience pain in the toes and foot in addition to back and leg pain.
- Sciatic nerve pain in one area of the leg may aggravate when sitting. Walking or standing can exacerbate it to become sharp pain.
- Patients may also experience tingling or burning and or numbness which may begin in the lower back area and radiate to the legs via the buttocks.
- Damage of the sciatic nerve can cause weakness in the legs and bladder or bowel dysfunction.
Causes of sciatic nerve pain
Sciatic nerve pain can occur as a symptom of varied underlying conditions such as degenerative disc diseases, lumbar herniated disc, isthmic spondylolisthesis, and lumbar spinal stenosis, etc., which are responsible for irritation of the nerve.
Occasional and minor sciatic nerve pain can also occur due to everyday factors like muscle spasm or strain, pregnancy, obesity or overweight, and a wrong posture, particularly when sleeping.
- A disc is a body structure that differentiates one vertebrae from the other. Herniated disc is a condition wherein the inner main layer of a disc protrudes via the fibrous outer layer. It is also called a bulging disc, slipped disc, or ruptured disc.
- A herniated disc that occurs in the lumbar area is known as a lumbar herniated disc. The condition exerts excessive pressure on the sciatic nerve thereby irritating it and causing sciatic nerve pain that begins in the lumbar area of the body.
- Dislocation of the vertebrae into the forward position is known as spondylolisthesis. It may sometimes cause pain by squeezing the spinal nerves.
- Spinal canal constriction or spinal stenosis generally affects the elderly, especially people older than 60 years. Degenerative disc disorder or degenerative disc disease is also typically correlated to an increasing age.
Treatment of sciatic nerve pain
Treatment of sciatic nerve pain is dependent on the underlying cause and the severity of the pain. It can be classified into 2 types, i.e., non-surgical treatment and surgical treatment.
- Adequate bed rest is usually advised for alleviation of mild pain. The condition often resolves in a few weeks on its own. It may however be noted that repeated instances of sciatic nerve pain need to be checked for underlying causative diseases.
- Pain can be managed by application of ice or heat packs. It helps decrease the inflammation associated with sciatic nerve irritation. The packs may be applied for at least 30 minutes, with a gap of 2 to 3 hours between sessions, on a daily basis.
- Medications may sometimes be needed to find relief from inflammation and sciatic nerve pain. NSAIDs or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs as well as steroids may be prescribed by doctors for pain relief. Pain killers and muscle relaxants are also helpful. In severe cases, and epidural steroid injection may be administered to reduce the swelling.
- It may be noted that medicines only offer temporary respite from sciatic nerve pain. Exercises and physical therapy can offer a more permanent resolution and help reduce the instances of recurrences and flare-ups in the future.
- Back exercises, stretching, and regular physical activities can help strengthen the back and abdomen muscles. Swimming and other low-intensity aerobic workouts can facilitate increased production of endorphin neurochemicals, which are the body’s natural painkillers and analgesics. Exercising is especially helpful in easing sciatic nerve pain caused by pregnancy.
- Alternative treatment options include massage therapy for blood circulation improvement, muscle relaxation, and secretion of endorphins. Acupuncture can also help ease the discomfort and alleviate back pain.
- Surgery: Doctors may opt for surgical treatment if sciatic nerve pain does not resolve in 6 to 12 weeks, or if accompanied by bladder or bowel incontinence or progressive weakness of the lower limbs, or if the pain is caused by severe disorders like herniated disc, etc. Some surgical treatment options include microdecompression of the spine, open decompression, microdiscectomy, or lumbar laminectomy. Recovery takes about 1 to 2 months.