What Is Sciatica?

Everyone has heard of sciatica, but few people know what it actually is – or isn’t. Sciatica is not a spinal condition or disease, but rather a set of symptoms associated with a variety of spinal conditions. It’s characterized by irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve. Unfortunately, sciatic episodes are painful and can diminish your quality of life.

Below, we’ll explore the topic of sciatica, what causes it, and how it’s treated. With the range of advanced sciatica remedies available today, you can attain relief from this form of nerve pain. 

Where Is Sciatica Pain Located?

Sciatica pain moves along the sciatic nerve. As the longest nerve in the body, the sciatic nerve extends from the base of the spine through the hips and buttocks and down the legs to the tips of the feet. Considering the length of this nerve, sciatica pain can impact a large portion of the body. 

What Are The Symptoms of Sciatica?

If you’re struggling with undiagnosed nerve pain, you may wonder: What does sciatica feel like? 

Symptoms of compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve can include:

  • Radiating pain
  • Numbness
  • Muscle weakness
  • A tingling sensation along the length of the nerve
  • Lower back pain
  • Worsened pain with motion
  • Lost range of motion

In severe cases, sciatica can contribute to the development of cauda equina syndrome. This syndrome involves compression of the cauda equina nerves, which may lead to lost bowel and bladder function. This complication is rare and doesn’t affect most patients with sciatica. 

What Does Sciatica Feel Like?

Sciatica feels like a dull ache, subtle tingling, or burning sensation that moves from the lower back down the back of the legs. 

Some patients with sciatica also report weakness and numbness in the leg and foot, or trouble moving the leg, foot, and/or toes. With severe sciatica, it can even be difficult to walk or stand up from a seated position. 

With that said, the sensation of sciatica can differ from patient to patient. The feeling of this condition varies depending on the extent of the lumbar nerve compression, as well as the patient’s overall health.

For example, for some patients, sciatica causes a dull, constant ache. But, for others, the condition triggers sharp, burning pain that only strikes when they move into a certain position. Some patients even say that sciatica feels like an electric shock. 

If you’re not sure if what you’re feeling is sciatica or not, visit a licensed physician for a diagnosis. 

What Is The Main Cause of Sciatica?

Several different spinal conditions can cause sciatica, including:

  • Herniated disc

When one of the intervertebral discs in the spine becomes damaged, the soft disc interior may protrude from the damaged exterior. This is known as a herniated or ruptured disc. 

A herniated disc in the lower back (lumbar spine) can press against the spinal nerves or leak fluid into the spinal canal. This may result in pressure on the sciatic nerve.

  • Traumatic injuries

Traumatic injuries can compress or irritate the sciatic nerve roots, or the sciatic nerve itself. Car accidents and falls are the most common traumatic injuries that can trigger sciatica. 

  • Spondylolisthesis

Spondylolisthesis occurs when one of the vertebrae in the spine slips out of position and rests on the vertebra beneath it, most commonly as a result of spinal degeneration in older patients. This condition can cause sciatica if it impinges on any part of the sciatic nerve.

  • Spinal stenosis

Lumbar spinal stenosis – the narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back – can compress or irritate the sciatic nerve. This condition can occur as a result of spinal degeneration, osteoarthritis, and bone spurs. 

Does Sciatica Show Up On X-Rays?

When a patient experiences sciatica symptoms that don’t resolve after a few weeks of conservative therapies, the physician will likely conduct imaging tests to verify that the nerve pain is resulting from sciatica.

Key causes of sciatica including a slipped disc and bone spurs will appear on many types of imaging tests, including a CT scan, MRI scan, and x-ray. Since an x-ray is much faster and more affordable than either a CT or MRI scan, it’s likely to be ordered first. 

What Are The Types of Sciatica?

Sciatica can be categorized by the length of time that the symptoms persist, or by the legs (one or both) that are impacted. 

When sciatica is categorized by the duration of the pain, it’s said to be either acute or chronic. 

  • Acute sciatica lasts for four to eight weeks in total. This type of sciatica comes about rapidly, but can be effectively managed with at-home methods like rest, heat and ice therapy, and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications. 
  • Sciatica is considered to be chronic when it causes pain that persists longer than eight weeks. Generally, chronic sciatica doesn’t abate with at-home treatment methods. Non-surgical methods can successfully treat chronic sciatica, but some patients will need surgery for the condition to fully resolve. 

When sciatica is categorized by the legs that are affected, it’s said to be either alternating or bilateral. 

  • Alternating sciatica causes alternating pain in both legs. This form of sciatica typically results from degenerative problems in the sacroiliac joint, which is the joint that links the hips to the spine. 
  • Bilateral sciatica affects both legs simultaneously. This rare type of sciatica may result from disc or vertebrae degeneration at multiple levels of the spine. Bilateral sciatica can also be triggered by cauda equina syndrome, which we’ve already mentioned in this article, and other severe conditions.  

What Happens If Sciatica Is Left Untreated?

Left untreated, sciatica pain may worsen, eventually leading to permanent nerve damage. This could lead to chronic pain in other areas of the body. With this in mind, it’s essential for patients to receive prompt treatment for sciatica pain, even if it appears to be a mild case. 

How Do You Relieve Sciatic Nerve Pain?

For sciatica treatment, physicians usually begin with several months of conservative treatment before considering surgery. 

Conservative, non-surgical treatments for sciatica typically include physical therapy, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and low-impact exercises. Alternative methods such as massage therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, and acupressure may also be employed.

How To Help Sciatica Pain

In addition to the non-invasive treatments listed above, there are several ways that you can adjust your lifestyle to enhance your sciatica recovery, including:

  • Quitting smoking. Smoking and all nicotine products are detrimental to the body’s natural healing process. 
  • Stick to a low-impact exercise regimen. Exercise will strengthen your muscles and support the health of your joints, which can relieve stress on the sciatic nerve. 
  • Maintaining a healthy weight. Losing even a few extra pounds can greatly reduce the strain on your spine, which can in turn reduce sciatica pain. 
  • Wear supportive footwear, or consider placing orthopedic inserts in your shoes. 
  • If your occupation requires many hours of sitting in a chair, ensure that your chair provides excellent back support. 

In severe cases of sciatica involving unrelenting and/or debilitating symptoms, non-invasive treatments and lifestyle adjustments may fail to provide relief. In these cases, surgery for sciatica, such as a discectomy or foraminotomy, may be required. 

Spinal decompression surgery relieves the pressure on the sciatic nerve and is often paired with spine fusion surgery to stabilize the spine. During fusion, bone graft material is placed in between the affected vertebrae, causing them to slowly fuse into a single bone.

Unfortunately, spinal fusion eliminates the independent mobility of the fused vertebrae. This limits patients’ mobility after the procedure while requiring an extensive recovery process. 

How Long Does It Take For Sciatica To Go Away?

Cases of acute sciatica typically resolve within four to six weeks with rest and at-home remedies. However, chronic sciatica can take much longer to fully resolve, depending on its cause. 

If chronic sciatica doesn’t require surgery, it may go away within four to twelve weeks of rest and rehabilitation. For sciatica cases that do require surgery, the recovery process after the operation may last for four to six weeks. But, if spinal fusion is performed, the patient may not fully heal for six months to a year. 

What Is The Fastest Way To Cure Sciatica?

Given that spinal fusion greatly prolongs the sciatica recovery process, many patients seek out other options. Thankfully, there’s a spinal fusion alternative that’s proven to improve clinical outcomes, shorten the recovery process, and preserve the patient’s natural range of motion in the individual vertebrae: the TOPS Posterior Arthroplasty procedure.

TOPS is one of the exciting advances bringing new hope to patients with moderate to severe spinal conditions who aren’t responding to conservative treatments. Premia Spine, the creator of the TOPS System, is at the forefront of advanced surgical treatments for spinal disorders.

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We encourage anyone with lower back pain and sciatica symptoms to investigate all their treatment options before undergoing spinal fusion. With the range of cutting-edge therapies available today, you can achieve sciatica relief without the limitations and drawbacks associated with fusion.