Sciatica - what a nerve! April 2009
Sciatica – what a nerve!
In our younger days, most of us will have come across someone walking badly or complaining of bad leg pain caused by sciatica.
Sciatica is quite a common term but it is not until we get older that we realise it can be a dreadful problem that can really affect one’s life.
Generally sciatica is used to describe pain from our sciatic nerve, the main nerve in our leg and the largest nerve in our body. The sciatic nerve radiates down from the bottom of the spine, through our buttocks, along the back of the thigh and down below the knee to the foot. If the nerve is entrapped, compressed or irritated anywhere along its line, it can cause quite severe pain that can radiate up and down the nerve.
The most usual cause of problems is compression of the nerve at the point where it leaves the spine but it can also be caused by trigger points in soft tissue.
In younger people, sciatica can be caused by a prolapsed disc, while as we get older, conditions that affect the spine such as osteoarthritis can also cause sciatic pain.
Sometimes just sitting in a bad posture for too long (such as a poor sitting position while spending hours in front of a computer or tv) can cause sciatica. In many cases, there is no clear cause and the problem cause be from a combination of muscle, joint and bone strain.
There is no exact symptom for sciatica – the only common ground is that in serious cases will know you have a problem as it can be very painful. It usually only affects one leg, and can start with extreme pain in the low of your back radiating through the top of the thigh and down your leg; it can travel as far as the foot. Sometimes pain simply occurs in a section of the sciatic nerve such as the thigh. There may be some numbness or tingling, or a slight weakness in the affected leg while at the other end of the scale the pain can be so severe that it prohibits movement. Pain can be persistent or come in spasms and then ease.
Medically, sciatica is put into two different classifications: acute sciatica for pain which lasts up to six weeks and chronic sciatica for problems which last longer.
Prevention of course is the best scenario; and ensuring you have a good sitting posture in your day to day activities can help enormously. Taking regular exercise such as simple walking can also help prevent this painful condition.
Once you suffer from sciatica, again by adjusting your sitting position, you may be able to resolve or minimise the problem. With short lived or acute sciatica, the condition may pass without the need for any treatment.
Otherwise the main way forward is with the standard over-the-counter painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication. Sometimes exercise can help and hot or cold packs can also be used to help ease the pain and problems.
When the sciatica is more severe, help from a physiotherapist can work well. In severe cases when the pain is disabling, epidural injections can be used and the end of the line is surgery to control the underlying cause.
If you believe you are suffering from sciatica then, as with all painful medical conditions, it is worth talking to your doctor to ensure the right diagnosis and best treatment.
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