Sciatica is a very common diagnosis given to someone suffering from low back pain with symptoms usually traveling down one leg. Sciatica is defined as the irritation, inflammation, pinching, or compression of the sciatic nerve, which is a large nerve that originates in the low back and travels down each leg. Someone who has sciatica may have pain starting from the low back to the hips, buttocks, and possibly down the leg to the feet. It can also cause sensory deficits and radiating symptoms of numbness and tingling in the lower extremity.
Who does sciatica typically affect? There are risk factors that can make a person more susceptible to the condition which includes: poor posture, obesity, previous back injury, physically demanding jobs, severe arthritis, inactivity, and smoking. Those with a high amount of ligament laxity (hypermobile joints) may develop sciatica due to slipped discs causing nerve compression. Sciatica may also affect women who become pregnant after gaining weight.
Someone who suspects they may have sciatica should consult with their healthcare provider. Usually, the provider will perform X-rays to rule out fractures, bone spurs, or disc problems first. Sometimes, the provider will also have patients undergo an MRI, EMG (electromyography), or myelogram, however, those will depend on the severity of symptoms and if conservative measures fail. Doctors may prescribe medication to relieve pain and inflammation, give steroid injections, or prescribe physical therapy for conservative management.
Physical therapists can evaluate and treat someone with sciatica. They will recommend and teach stretching exercises to reduce pressure on the sciatic nerve and provide strengthening exercises for muscles of the back, abdomen, and legs. Physical therapists can also perform soft tissue massage or trigger point release of and around the piriformis muscle (a muscle that the sciatic nerve travels through near the buttocks) to relieve pressure off the nerve. They can also instruct patients on how to maintain proper posture and proper body mechanics during physical activities to avoid sciatica.
Sciatica is a fairly common problem that affects more than 3 million people in the US. Fortunately, sciatica can be treated conservatively and be resolved in a few weeks to months. Consult with your doctor and/or physical therapist if you suspect the signs of sciatica.