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Sciatica: What is It and How Is It Treated?

There are many nerves that exit the spinal column, spanning from the neck to the low back. The sciatic nerve is located in the lumbar spine and is a collection of 5 sets of paired nerve roots. Sciatica is the term used to describe the symptoms that can originate in one or more of these nerve roots. Because the sciatic nerve travels from the back of the pelvis down through the buttock muscle and down the back of the leg, symptoms of compression may occur in any of these areas.

Some people experience sciatica as muscle weakness in the leg. Some develop numbness, tingling, or pain on one side of the back or buttock or in one leg. Additional symptoms that may occur include cramping and shooting pain or, when severe compression has occurred, loss of mobility.

Sciatica can occur for several reasons. A thorough spinal examination and consultation are necessary to identify the origin of uncomfortable symptoms. Some of the common causes of sciatica pain include:

  • Low back injury resulting from lifting a heavy object or traumatic accident.
  • Spinal stenosis, or narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back.
  • A herniated disc may leak fluid into the space around the spine, causing irritation in the sciatic nerve.
  • Spondylolisthesis, or the slipping of one vertebra over another, may occur as a result of disc degeneration.
  • Piriformis syndrome is a soft tissue condition affecting the deep buttock muscle.
  • Rarely, sciatica may be caused by a benign or cancerous spinal tumor.

Getting Help for Sciatica

Like chronic back pain, sciatica is not a normal effect of aging. If pain does not resolve spontaneously within a few days or if pain becomes severe, it is necessary to undergo a thorough spinal examination. Sciatica is an indication of nerve compression. Without proper care, the overall condition of the affected nerve and correlating spinal segment can continue to degrade, making it more difficult to stop the pain.

There may be steps in sciatica treatment based on the severity of symptoms:

  • Rest may be the remedy for a bout of acute sciatica. Rest should be limited to one to two days. Staying immobile for longer than this invites muscle stiffness and a longer road to full recovery.
  • Medication can be taken to reduce inflammation and improve comfort. However, it is important to recognize that medication may only mask pain. If symptoms recur, we must address the underlying cause.
  • Hot and cold therapy can be applied interchangeably to reduce inflammation and loosen tight muscles.
  • Physical therapy may be prescribed to alleviate pressure on the sciatic nerve.

If sciatica is severe and responsible for extreme weakness in the leg or foot, or if the condition has affected bladder or bowel control, surgery may be indicated. Surgery relieves compression on the nerve and seeks to preserve its function.

Discover the cause of sciatica. Consult with board-certified neurosurgeon Dr. Lipani in our Somerset, Morristown, or Princeton office.

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