What is Sciatica?

What is Sciatica?
“My sciatica is acting up” is a common phrase.  People generally use the word to describe butt pain, back pain or leg pain.  To a doctor, sciatica refers to pain travelling down one side of the lower back and or butt down the back of the leg.  Sciatica may stop mid hamstring or continue to the calf and foot.  The term refers to the path of the sciatic nerve, a large nerve bundle that carries sensory (what you feel) and motor (how you move) nerves down the leg from the lower spine.  It is the thickest nerve in the body. 

Sciatica is a broad term which does not specify the cause of the pain; rather, it is a description of symptoms.  Sciatica can result from any of the following:

A pinched nerve in the spine due to a disc, arthritis, or spine slippage
A gluteus or pyriformis (buttock) muscle injury or spasm
A hamstring injury
A soft tissue injury to the hip such as a labral tear
Pressure on the sciatic nerve along its path through the pelvis from any cause

The medical term for sciatica originating from a pinched spinal nerve is radiculopathy.  Radiculopathy is radiating pain from an irritated nerve along the path of that nerve.  (You can also have a radiculopathy down the arm from a pinched nerve in the neck.)  Radiculopathy is often accompanied by burning and shooting pain and can also be associated with weakness and numbness. 

If you are suffering from the symptoms of sciatica for longer than 3 days, see a doctor.  If you have accompanying leg weakness, such as trouble lifting your foot as you walk (a foot drop) see a doctor immediately; you may have a herniated disc.  While this is not life threatening, it can become permanent if not treated early.  Taking steroids by mouth or injection are part of the treatment. 

If ignored, sciatica pain often causes other joint trouble.  Limping to avoid pain can lead to a rotated pelvis, excess stress on the opposite hip and knee, and twisted dysfunctional posture.  This can begin a never-ending cycle of pain that may take twice as long to recover from as the sciatica cause itself.  


With the right diagnosis and treatment, sciatica will resolve.  Strengthening and stretching is always essential to recovery.  Consider a maintenance exercise and stretching routine to prevent sciatica from returning.  Modifying irritating activities are also important to full recovery.  Spine straining exercises such as rowing, medicine ball twists and throws, and heavy lifting may need to be eliminated from your work-out routine for life.  Be wary of moving furniture or lifting heavy items.  Especially avoid combining Bending, Lifting and Twisting motions (BLT).  As with all injury prevention, listen to your body and stop if you feel pain.  


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