What causes sciatica?
Many people suffer from sciatic pain. The term “sciatica” refers to any pain or tingling that goes down the back of your leg or into your foot. It can feel like pins and needles, you could have numbness in your foot or leg, or you could have severe pain that radiates from your back down into your foot. What causes this pain? Not all sciatic pain is created equal. If you are seeking the advice of a health care provider, you will want them to do an examination to determine where your symptoms are coming from. Here is some information about what they should be looking for.
What does the term “sciatica” mean?
Your spine is made up of a stack of bones called vertebrae, which houses your spinal cord. Your nerves branch out from your spinal cord, exit through little spaces in the sides of the vertebrae, and travel down to your arms and legs. The nerves then communicate with the various muscles so you can move around. The sciatic nerve is formed by nerve branches that come from your spine and run down the back of your leg. “Sciatica” is a term used to describe pain that you are having in this nerve.
What causes a pinched nerve?
The spaces where the nerves exit from your spine are relatively small. If something blocks that space, it interrupts the nerve to that particular body part. This is what causes the pain or tingling. If the pinched nerve is in your lower back, the pain goes down your leg. If the pinched nerve is in your neck, it will cause arm or hand pain.
What are examples of things that might block the nerve as it comes through this space? If someone has arthritis, it could be a bone spur that has formed in or near the space. This can be seen on an X-ray. If there are a lot of bony changes to the spine and this is blocking the nerve, your diagnosis will likely be spinal stenosis, which is a topic for a later date. A tumor or other growth could also block the space, but luckily these are rare. The most common cause of a pinched nerve is a herniated disk.
There are little disks between each vertebra that provides cushioning. They are made of a jelly-like substance inside, but covered by a harder coating. If enough pressure is put on the jelly, either because of an injury or wear and tear, the jelly can squirt out, or herniate, into the hole where the nerve is traveling. This puts pressure on the nerve and causes the pain or tingling down the arm or leg. The most common way that a disk herniates is by bending over to lift something that is too heavy.
Another cause of sciatic pain is Piriformis Syndrome. As we mentioned, true sciatic pain occurs when the sciatic nerve is pinched as the nerve exits the spine. However, inflammation or spasm of the piriformis muscle can cause the same symptoms. The piriformis muscle is located in the buttock. If it goes into spasm, it can press down on the sciatic nerve and cause pain.
As you can see, there are a few conditions that might be causing sciatic pain. Any pain that goes down your leg is often labeled as “sciatica”. However, it is important to find out what is causing it so that you can find the best treatment.
What are the treatment options for sciatica?
If you have sciatic pain, the traditional first treatment is a prescription for pain killers. These do help a percentage of the time, or else no one would use them. If it doesn’t work, or if the pain comes back, then you will likely return to the doctor’s office. This time, they might order an MRI to take a closer look at the area, and may even suggest a cortisone injection. Again, this works a percentage of the time. When this fails, or the pain becomes chronic, then the next step is to discuss surgical options.
Physical therapy for sciatic pain
What can physical therapy do for sciatica? When you come to your first therapy appointment, you should receive an evaluation to determine what is causing your pain. As we mentioned, the treatment will be different depending on what is causing your pain. After you receive an evaluation, you will receive treatments, which will include various exercises for how to correct the problem. There might even be things that you are doing at home that could be aggravating your condition. You might have poor sleeping, sitting or standing postures that could be making it worse. The knowledge that you gain can help fix the current problem, but also potentially keep it from coming back.
Physical therapy is also more natural way of treating pain, rather than just masking it with pain killers. If you are able to gain strength and flexibility by doing the exercises that you will learn, this will likely lead to more lasting results. Most importantly, physical therapy treatment might help you to avoid surgery or other painful procedures. Once something is surgically altered there’s no going back, so you will want to be sure that you have exhausted all of your other options first.
There are plenty of exercises and resources on the internet regarding treatment for sciatic pain. It might be useful to look into these, and maybe even try a few. However, each person’s situation is unique. The internet is no substitute for someone listening to your problem, examining you, and helping you to come up with a plan that meets your specific needs. If your sciatic pain has gotten bad enough that you are seeking help, consider giving physical therapy a try.