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  • Writer's pictureKate

What is sciatica?

SCIATICA is often confused with lower back pain, but it's not quite the same thing. With sciatica, as pain tracks down the sciatic nerve – the largest nerve in the body – it radiates to your buttock and hip, and travels down the back of your leg, sometimes all the way to your foot. Fortunately, proper treatment and good self-management can help stop sciatica in its path.

What is sciatica? The spinal cord is divided into four main sections from top to bottom: the cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral regions. Spinal nerves are named for the part of the spine where they originate. In sciatica, the fifth lumbar nerve (L5) and first sacral nerve (S1) are most often involved. When these nerve roots are irritated, sciatica can result.

What causes sciatica? Causes of sciatica include herniated discs, bone spurs and cysts in a facet joint of the back. Lumbar spinal stenosis, in which the spinal canal of the lower back becomes narrow, can also lead to sciatica. Spondylolisthesis, a condition in which a lower backbone slips forward, is another cause. Spine mechanics are related to posture and how you lift objects, stand or sit.

Who gets sciatica? Sciatica can strike almost anybody. People in their 30s to 50s are most likely to have sciatica, but so can seniors and teens. Pregnant women may experience sciatica-like pain.

Sciatica can happen for no particular reason. "Some people say, 'I woke up in the morning with pain, all of a sudden.' Sometimes people will say, 'I was lifting something heavy and felt a pop in my back.' It can happen without warning. It can happen when you've clearly done something to trigger your back. There's just no way to know.

What does sciatica pain feel like? Patients describing sciatica symptoms typically complain of shooting pain runs down the back of their thigh. It can be both, but it's usually just one leg.

Sciatica pain can feel like tingling or burning down the leg. The leg may also feel weak, making it difficult to stand. Sitting becomes uncomfortable from pain in the affected buttock or leg.

How is sciatica treated? With most common causes of nerve irritation, sciatica pain can be managed with physical therapy and exercises to help patients strengthen the abdominal muscles to better support the spine. Pilates classes may help some patients with sciatica.

What are sciatica exercises and stretches? Physical therapy makes a significant difference for many people with sciatica. Have a physical therapist evaluate you and give you the most effective treatment plan for your specific issue.

How can I prevent sciatica? Following a healthy lifestyle can keep your back healthy and help you avoid sciatica. Maintaining a healthy body weight – as challenging as that can be – is important, especially as you age. Keeping active and moving also matter. Walking every day – that's great exercise. Alternating sitting and standing at work, doing core-strengthening exercises and abstaining from smoking can all help promote long-term back health.

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