A Patient’s Guide to Sciatica

A Patient's Guide to Sciatica

Sciatica refers to pain that begins in the spine and radiates down a leg. Sciatica isn’t a standalone medical condition; rather, it’s a symptom of an underlying problem. Sciatica may cause mild, moderate, or severe pain. If you’ve developed sciatica, your orthopedic surgeon will likely ask you to try nonsurgical treatments first. Many patients enjoy relief from sciatica symptoms without having to undergo surgery, but occasionally, surgery may be necessary.

Understanding the Causes and Risk Factors of Sciatica

The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the human body. You have two of them. They start in the lower spine. Then, one extends through each buttock and down the backs of the legs, ending in the feet. The sciatic nerves provide important pathways for electrical impulses from the spine to the lower body. Unfortunately, the sciatic nerve can sometimes experience problems.

Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve becomes compressed or pinched. This often happens when bone spurs develop on the spine. It can also happen when one of the intervertebral discs (located between the bones of the spine) herniates, pushing the inner material of the disc outward. Less commonly, sciatica may be the result of nerve damage from diabetes or compression by a tumor. Some people can be at a higher risk of sciatic nerve pain. Risk factors include the following:

  • Sitting or driving for long periods at a time
  • Having obesity (which places additional stress on the spine)
  • Having a labor-intensive occupation
  • Being between the ages of 30 and 50

Identifying the Symptoms of Sciatica

It’s possible to experience nerve pain at any point along the nerve pathway. However, the pain of sciatica usually starts at the lower back and progresses through the buttock, and down the back of the thigh. Sciatica typically affects just one side of the body.

Some patients describe the pain as feeling like a mild ache, while others suffer from a sharp, burning sensation. It may also feel like an electric shock. The nerve pain may be accompanied by numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness along the nerve pathway.

Treating Sciatica Without Surgery

About 80% to 90% of patients with sciatica recover within a few weeks, without the need for surgery. Since back pain can worsen with prolonged bed rest, orthopedic surgeons recommend gentle movement throughout the day. An over-the-counter (OTC) nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as naproxen, can help relieve the back pain and inflammation. If OTC drugs aren’t sufficient, the orthopedic doctor may recommend a prescription-strength NSAID or a muscle relaxant.

It can also be helpful to work with a physical therapist. A physical therapist can help you stay active during your recovery. If your back pain is too severe for physical therapy, your doctor might recommend a cortisone injection to deliver medication directly to the site of inflammation.

Determining When Surgery May Be Needed

An orthopedic surgeon might recommend that you consider surgery if you’ve been experiencing severe symptoms for at least three months, without sufficient relief from nonsurgical treatments. Surgery may also be recommended if you have significant muscle weakness or progressively worsening pain. Rarely, emergency surgery may be needed for patients with a complication called cauda equina syndrome, which is characterized by the loss of bowel or bladder control.

The goal of sciatica surgery is to correct the anatomical problem that’s exerting pressure on the sciatic nerve, such as a bone spur or herniated disc. The orthopedic surgeon can remove the portion of disc material or the bone spur in order to relieve the compression on the nerve.

If you do need surgery, following your surgeon’s discharge instructions is crucial for supporting your recovery and rehabilitation. You can expect to work with a physical therapist to improve your movement and strengthen your core.

There’s no need to suffer from the debilitating symptoms of sciatica any longer. Pain management, nonsurgical treatments, and minimally invasive spine surgeries are our specialties here at Oasis Medical Group. Try our online pain assessment tool to get started today.