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The Science of Sciatica

September 13, 2019

The Science of Sciatica

Chances are you or someone you know has complained of a backache. But if you’re experiencing consistent, sharp pain, it could be a sign that your pain is more than just muscle soreness. Get the facts about sciatica and learn how you can get back to a life with less pain.

What is sciatica?

Sciatica is a specific kind of back pain, sometimes described as feeling like a bad leg cramp that lasts for weeks. People may also experience weakness or a burning or tingling sensation down the leg.

“It’s usually a sharp, shooting electrical pain that can actually be worse when sitting down and may be accompanied by numbness or tingling,” says Kamal Woods, MD, Brain & Spine neurosurgeon at Kettering Health Network.

Why does the pain start?

The pain is caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve. This nerve starts in the lower back, then splits and runs down both hips and legs. When a protruding, or herniated, disk in the spine presses on those nerve roots in the lower back, people experience sciatic pain.

Where are symptoms felt?

Most cases of sciatica affect only one side of the body. Pain typically starts in the lower back or hip and radiates down the sciatic nerve, often through the back of the thigh and into the leg.

Who is affected?

Most people with sciatica are between 30 and 50 years old. It could be caused simply by aging or by any pressure put on the bones in the lower spine. This pressure can be a result of heavy lifting or even prolonged sitting.

“We tend to see sciatic pain in two groups of people: those who are young and active and may have overexerted or injured something, or older people with bone spurs,” Dr. Woods says.

People who are overweight and women who are pregnant are also at a higher risk of the herniated disk that causes sciatic nerve pain.

When should you seek treatment?

If you are experiencing bowel or bladder incontinence along with sciatic pain, Dr. Woods says you should seek emergency care immediately. “Otherwise, we usually recommend taking over-the-counter pain relievers that are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and avoiding any heavy lifting for several days,” Dr. Woods says.

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, most people—80-90%—get better without needing surgery, given enough time and rest. While people may be tempted to limit movement, it is important to stay somewhat active, as movement can help reduce inflammation. Stretches or physical therapy can also help relieve the pain.

“If the pain doesn’t get better and surgery is required, there are now minimally invasive ways to treat the problem with a less than one-inch incision,” Dr. Woods says. “Outpatient surgeries enable patients to return to their work, family, and hobbies quickly.”

Rest your spine

Sleeping on your back puts 55 pounds of pressure on your spine. Placing pillows under your knees cuts that in half and may help lessen back pain.

See a specialist

If you think you’re experiencing sciatic pain, schedule an appointment with a Kettering Health Network Brain & Spine specialist by calling 1-855-786-2649.