You might not be familiar with the term “sciatica pain” (pronounced sigh-AT-eh-ka), but there is a good chance you have experienced it at some point or another. According to estimates, some 40% of Americans develop sciatica pain during their lifetime. While any type of bodily pain can be wearisome and taxing, sciatica pain can be particularly stressful, lingering for weeks on end and striking large swaths of the lower body. Though sciatica pain can make daily life much more difficult, it can be largely alleviated through a combination of certain treatment methods.
The Root Cause of Sciatic Pain
Sciatic pain derives from problems in the sciatic nerve, which owns the title of the largest nerve in the human body. The sciatic nerve originates in the base of the spinal column, and extends down through the heel of the foot (your body has two of these nerves, with one built into each leg). If you happen to look at a sciatic nerve diagram, you’ll notice that it forms from the convergence of three separate nerves, referred to by doctors as the L4, L5 and sacral nerve roots.
Sciatic pain can often be traced back to the sciatic nerve’s roots. A typical case of sciatic pain begins when the patient’s spinal discs, due to years of constant wear and tear, start to bulge outward. If these herniated discs are located towards the bottom of the spine, they can easily press against one or more of these nerve roots, causing waves of pain to flow from the lower back through the leg. In addition to bulging discs in the lower spinal column, sciatic pain can also result from the following circumstances:
- The patient’s spinal canal, a cylindrical empty space formed by the holes in individual vertebrae, begins to steadily narrow in size. This condition, known as spinal stenosis, effectively results in several vertebrae encroaching on the spinal cord.
- The appearance of bone spurs, or bony growths jutting outward from individual vertebrae. These growths often from due to a preexisting case of arthritis.
- Abnormal amounts of pressure pressed against the sciatic nerve or its roots. This condition is known as nerve compression.
How Sciatic Pain Affects the Body
A damaged sciatic nerve announces its presence through a number of symptoms. As mentioned previously, patients tend to experience persistent pain that emanates from the lower back. Theses bouts of pain frequently travel through the back of the thigh and into the lower leg. Such pain can be accompanied by burning or tingling sensations. The patient’s leg and/or food might become noticeably numb and weak, to the point that walking becomes increasingly difficult. The sciatic pain may grow worse in the leg and/or buttocks when the patient sits, or could inhibit the patient’s ability to stand up. Curiously enough, sciatica patients generally suffer pain in just one leg, while the other remains pain-free.
Though it can be relatively severe in intensity, sciatic pain often vanishes from the body on its own. This doesn’t mean that doctors advise patients to do nothing until the pain subsides. On the contrary, those with sciatic pain are usually encouraged to follow a number of guidelines aimed at alleviating their symptoms. Some of the techniques used to remedy sciatic pain are listed below:
Patients are told to avoid sitting down, and to stand as much as possible. Of course, this advice is inverted if the patient encounters more pain when standing upright.
- Common over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can temporarily dull pain from pinched or pressured nerves.
- Heating pads have gained a deserved reputation as an effective pain-fighter. Given such a track record, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that sciatic pain can be mitigated through the use of a heating pad. For optimal results, apply the heating pain to the afflicted area every 2 to 3 hours for 15 to 20 minute intervals.
- Another common treatment involves the exact opposite approach – instead of heat, a patient can use icepacks to reduce pain in specific areas of the body. As with heating pads, icepacks should be used several times per day for a set amount of time (20 minutes should be sufficient).
If the patient’s symptoms show no sign of improvement and/or are especially severe, a doctor might recommend prescription-strength pain relievers. Some patients begin to recover after receiving an anti-inflammatory cortisone injection in the lower back. The patient may also be advised to consult with a pain specialist, who can accurately judge if physical therapy or even surgery is necessary.
Stopping Sciatica Pain Before it Starts
In a number of cases, sciatica pain is unavoidable; if the patient is suffering from degenerative disc disease, he or she stands a good chance of experiencing sciatica-related symptoms. This condition is hardly inevitable, however. Much of the damage we do to our backs is self-inflicted, and be avoided with simply common sense. By extension, the problems caused by such wear and tear can likewise be prevented.
When lifting heavy items, for instance, remember use your knees instead of lifting with your back. Good posture and regular exercise can preserve and strengthen your back and abdominal muscles, which in turn provide support to your spinal cord. Finally, here’s yet another reason stop smoking – cigarettes can hasten the degeneration of spinal discs, eventually causing the onset of sciatica pain.