There is no shortage of significant conditions that can afflict human health. Some impact our internal organs or biological functions, while others are detrimental to mental health. The different ailments that affect us can make the human experience somewhat frightening. After all, the idea that such diseases could compromise our health so suddenly and so completely is enough to make anyone nervous.
While some medical conditions are still being assessed to understand what causes them or how to treat them, others are more well-known. Unfortunately, just because a disease or ailment is well-known does not mean it is fully understood. This lack of understanding often extends to the patients suffering from the condition.
One such medical condition that is well-known but oft-misunderstood is sciatica. Sciatica is a term you have heard multiple times in life, likely in passing. While sciatica is a commonly cited condition, you might not be aware of the full extent of the condition.
No doubt you had heard about people’s back pain even when it was likely caused by something minor. The common association of sciatica and back pain has led to a false sense of understanding when it comes to what sciatica is and how it affects us. However, learning what sciatica truly is can be a major advantage for those concerned with contracting the condition.
Definition of Sciatica
Sciatica, also known as lumbar radiculopathy, is a neurological condition named after the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the nerve directly affected by sciatica and the symptoms it causes. The sciatic nerve is the longest in the human body, comprised of 5 nerve roots originating at the lower spine. This nerve cluster makes the sciatic nerve a nexus of physical stimulation and, unfortunately, pain when afflicted by a disease or injury. This is made worse when considering that the sciatic nerve connects the spinal cord to the thigh, leg, and foot.
The sciatic nerve, also known as the ischiatic nerve, is the largest branch of the sacral plexus and runs through the hip joint. The sciatic nerve runs through the L4 and S3 segments of the sacral plexus, which keeps the muscles of the legs, thighs, and feet connected to the spinal column. As a result, the sciatic nerve provides sensation to the skin around our feet and lower legs. This includes everything from basic stimulation such as hot and cold to pain response.
The sciatic nerve is extremely important to our body’s ability to function but is also extremely sensitive. When something damages the sciatic nerve, basic bodily movement is nearly impossible. This is primarily because damage to the sciatic nerve can induce an exaggerated pain response that makes movement difficult to endure.
While general damage to the sciatic nerve is enough to cause these unfortunate responses, major illnesses like sciatica remain a potential issue for long-term suffering. However, sciatica brings its unique range of symptoms that directly affect the damage done to the sciatic nerve.
Symptoms of Sciatica
Sciatica has frequently been cited as the cause of most back pain in individuals with chronic issues. While sciatica is hardly the only major illness that can impact the state of your back, it is a top contender. Not everyone who claims sciatica is the cause of their pain is right, but plenty of people are correct in citing it as the source.
Chronic back pain caused by something more mundane than sciatica is often mistaken for the latter, leading to a few self-diagnoses gone wrong. Fortunately, there are additional symptoms accompanying back pain that can help determine whether you are suffering from sciatica or not.
The primary symptoms of sciatica include:
- Lower back pain that spreads down your buttocks and to the back of your thigh. In extreme cases, the pain radiates further and encompasses your foot.
- Severe cases of sciatica can induce numbness in the body.
- Severe cases of sciatica can also cause general weakness that makes it difficult to move or perform physical activities.
Unfortunately, the symptoms caused by sciatica are generic and can often be attributed to other conditions. This makes identifying sciatica as the cause of your pain a little more difficult without an expert opinion. While you might be averse to going to a doctor, it is often the only guaranteed method for identifying sciatica as the condition inducing pain. There are several tests that medical professionals employ to diagnose sciatica, but the most effective methods are:
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Electromyography (EMG)
- Nerve conduction study
These options allow for the highest chance of accurately diagnosing sciatica and can help accelerate your recovery. However, identifying sciatica is only one detail of combatting it. You will also need to understand the causes of sciatica so you can assess your risk of contracting the illness and whether you should pursue further testing.
Causes of Sciatica
Sciatica, like most diseases, does not spontaneously manifest in patients but is built up through certain causes. Most diseases have a unique list of causes, and not every potential risk will apply to every condition. Unfortunately, just as most symptoms of sciatica are generic and common to other illnesses, so are its causes. That said, some causes are more severe and less common that could be the source of your sciatica. These include:
- Herniated Disk: A herniated disk is a less common cause of sciatica as only up to 5% of Americans experience the issue throughout their lives. When a spinal disk is herniated, it risks pressing against the sciatic nerve and causing sciatica. It is incredibly difficult to herniate a spinal disk, usually requiring significant physical trauma.
- Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis can cause sciatica as a byproduct of your bones wearing down. The condition can cause bone spurs to form that compress the sciatic nerve, among other lower back nerves. While osteoarthritis is already highly detrimental and painful, the sciatica it causes can worsen the situation immeasurably.
- Physical Trauma: Perhaps one of the more mundane causes of sciatica, and easily the most common, physical trauma to the back and spine can damage the sciatic nerve. It is generally a good idea to seek medical care after a major injury, such as a motor vehicle collision, to check for damage to the spine.
While these are some of the more significant causes of sciatica in the body, some lesser issues can contribute. Obesity and poor posture can lead to unnecessary pressure on the sciatic nerve, causing sciatica to manifest. However, these are considered risk factors rather than genuine causes.
Several risk factors can contribute to the causes of sciatica, including:
- Preexisting Injuries: If you have already suffered a significant injury to your lower back or spine, your odds of contracting sciatica increase significantly. This is because your spine’s physical integrity is significantly weakened when injured, so a previous injury could leave you vulnerable to the general causes.
- Physically Demanding Work: The human body is only able to withstand so much strain or pressure before it begins to deteriorate. If you are in a line of work where you must do a lot of heavy lifting, that deterioration is accelerated. The more strain you subject your body to, the weaker your spine becomes and the more vulnerable you are to developing conditions like sciatica.
- Tobacco Use: While the idea that smoking tobacco affects vertebral health might seem like a stretch, it is more realistic than you might have guessed. The nicotine found in tobacco can damage spinal tissue, reducing the padding around the bones and weakening them. This results in exaggerated wear on the bones that can cause damage to the sciatic nerve and cause sciatica to manifest.
Sciatica has more causes and risk factors that apply to the average person’s lifestyle. The reality is that there are far too many to be covered by a single article in depth. Ultimately, determining sciatica’s cause and risk factors will lead everyone to the same result. It is finding a way to treat sciatica, so it does not control your life.
Treatments for Sciatica
The biggest concern for anyone suffering from a chronic illness like sciatica is how to treat it. Like most illnesses and ailments, the appropriate treatment for sciatica is determined by the severity of your diagnosis. You can treat some forms of sciatica from home with only a few resources easily acquired from your local pharmacy.
Unfortunately, most sciatica diagnoses are severe enough to warrant medical intervention from a qualified professional. The treatments involved in these severe cases can range from non-invasive to highly invasive, depending on the level of care necessary for recovery.
Most people consider prescription medication to be the primary treatment for any disorder. Some sciatica symptoms are severe enough to warrant a healthcare provider prescribing cyclobenzaprine. Cyclobenzaprine can alleviate the discomfort and pain that sciatica is known to produce, and sometimes more intense medications are required if your pain level is abnormally high. Fortunately, medication is not the only possible solution.
A physical therapy regimen is one of the most common alternatives to surgical or pharmaceutical intervention for sciatica. Physical therapy has been used to reduce the pain of countless physical ailments such as traumatic injuries or even recovery from a broken limb. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that it has found use in treating the effects of sciatica on the human body. The physical therapy regimen for sciatica usually focuses on stretching exercises designed to improve flexibility.
Your physical therapist will provide a series of exercises you can use to improve the strength and definition of the muscles in your back, abdomen, and legs. For the most part, physical therapy is sufficient for treating your sciatica without requiring you to endure an invasive procedure. Unfortunately, it is not perfect, and the more extreme cases of sciatica might require a more drastic solution.
Your physician might recommend spinal injections to treat sciatica as a last resort. Spinal injections involve having corticosteroids injected into the lower back to reduce the inflammation surrounding the affected nerve roots. Spinal injections can relieve the pain and symptoms sciatica is known to produce but is a short-term treatment whose effects last up to three months. After those three months have elapsed, you will need a subsequent injection to maintain the benefits. Spinal injections also carry a fair amount of risk, which is why they are never offered as the initial solution.
Knowing as much as possible about any condition is half the battle for healing. While you should trust your healthcare provider, learning what you can independently do is always good. Information will only take you so far, though; your next step will be finding a facility that can offer the best treatment possible.
Take Your Health to the Next Level!
Sciatica might be viewed as one of the “less severe” spinal issues, given its status as a byproduct of other major illnesses. However, it can be devastating if left unchecked, and your curiosity about how the condition affects you is commendable.
The information about sciatica in this article should be more than enough to prepare you for identifying the condition and how to proceed once a diagnosis is confirmed. You should not become too worried if you are diagnosed with sciatica since prompt action can prevent it from affecting you too severely. The only remaining question is where to find a provider who can help treat your sciatica.
Fortunately, we at Ortho Integrative can assist with that concern. With medical experts on staff who specialize in physical health, we can offer a wide assortment of treatments you can use to recover from sciatica. One of our top programs is our physical therapy service, designed to help you recover the functionality of your body in the face of severe injury or illness.
We are dedicated to helping our patients recover so they can return to the lives they know, and we would be thrilled to assist you. We encourage you to visit our website and check out our programs. With us, you can take your health to the Next Level!