Sciatica isn’t actually a medical condition at all. Rather, it’s a term used to describe symptoms stemming from the compression of the sciatic nerve in the lower back. When this happens, the pain beginning in nerve roots located on either side of the lower spine radiates down the length of the leg, depending on the affected side.
Sciatica affects between 3% and 14% of adults at some point in their lives, according to 2017 research in the journal BMJ. But for those affected, pain resulting from this poorly understood condition can be severe, Dr. Chang says.
“Pain from sciatica can be worse than back pain alone,” Dr. Chang adds. “It’s often compared to the agony of a toothache and cannot simply be ignored. Luckily, there are many successful ways to treat the problem.”
Symptoms stem from several causes
To figure out the best pain relief options for sciatica, it helps to understand its potential causes. While some people are simply more prone to the problem than others – including those over 45; smokers; tall people; and those coping with acute mental stress – certain activities can also contribute to sciatica’s development. These include frequent lifting, especially while twisting; and driving, especially when it vibrates the entire body.
Certain common back conditions also can lead to the pinched nerve(s) causing sciatica pain, including:
· Bulging or herniated spinal discs
· Spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal canal)
· Scar tissue
· Spinal bone spurs
Radiating pain from the lower back to the buttocks, thigh, calf and foot can also be accompanied by tingling and numbness, Dr. Chang explains. “The pain can be worse when sitting and can even affect standing or walking,” he adds. “With symptoms this severe, the need for relief can feel overwhelming.”
Tips for pain relief
It’s a good thing, then, that many at-home remedies as well as prescribed therapies are available for sciatica. Once a doctor confirms the diagnosis of sciatica – a process that can involve several tests and imaging scans – conservative treatments will generally be recommended at first, Dr. Chang says. These include:
· Alternating ice and heat application
· Over-the-counter or prescription anti-inflammatory pain relievers or muscle relaxants
· Exercise and/or physical therapy
· Epidural spinal injections
If non-surgical options don’t work after weeks or months of consistent use, only then will surgery be considered to correct the underlying condition fueling sciatica pain, Dr. Chang says. In about one-third of cases, sciatica patients experience persistent and disabling symptoms after one year, according to the BMJ research.
“The vast majority of sciatica patients can expect the problem to be temporary and won’t need surgery,” Dr. Chang says. “Easy treatments usually work, and a doctor’s care can help the pain be resolved even more quickly.”
Atlantic Spine Center is a nationally recognized leader for endoscopic spine surgery with several locations in NJ and NYC. www.atlanticspinecenter.
Kaliq Chang, MD, is an interventional pain management specialist board-certified in anesthesiology at Atlantic Spine Center.