Sciatica (also known as sciatic nerve pain) is a common condition that causes pain the lower back (the small of the back above the coccyx technically referred to as the lumbar spinal chord). This can be caused by any irritation of the sciatic nerve, including disk herniation – where a spinal disk presses onto the sciatic nerve and traps and squeezes it; by pressure from adjacent bones, tumours or muscles pushing against the nerve; by damage to the nerve itself; or by internal bleeding or by infection. This can commonly be caused by inherited back problems, by injury or by illness.
As the body uses nerves in the body to send and receive signals, this can cause either feedback or numbness from the nerve. Most often then sciatica symptoms include acute or chronic pain in the lower back. This can range in severity and may well be uncomfortable enough to affect other movements in the lower and/or upper body. In some cases it may be completely debilitating. Over time this pain may worsen or subside of its own accord depending on the nature of the damage.
Another of the main sciatica symptoms is ‘tingling’ and numbness which will often accompany the pain. This is due to the nerve being damaged and finding it difficult to transmit tactile feedback to the brain. Touching the painful areas can be a good way to determine whether these symptoms are present. As the sciatic nerve is the longest in the body the pain and numbness may also extend into other areas around the lower body. This can be felt in one or both legs, in the buttocks or even in the feet. Often these symptoms can be relived by lying down, stretching or massaging the area.
If sciatica symptoms are present, patients will be diagnosed with a physical exam combined with their medical history. At sciatica symptoms can have separate causes (bone or muscle damage for instance), a physician will use certain manoeuvres to ascertain whether the pain originates at the sciatic nerve. If the cause remains uncertain however, an x-ray, CAT scan, MRI scan or electromyogram can be used by the doctor to look for problems in the lower spine.
Depending on the cause and nature of the disruption, and on the severity of the of the sciatica symptoms doctors may then recommend ‘watchful waiting’, bed rest, exercises or physiotherapy. In more severe cases surgery or epidural may be recommended.
Sciatica symptoms can also be treated at home by patients utilising various exercises and stretches which can help to limber the lower spine and to relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve. These exercises involve such movements as hugging the knees and rocking back and forth on the back, or arching and lowering the back while on all fours. Many of the moves from Pilates can help combat sciatica and to help prevent it occurring in future. Similarly massaging the area or applying light but firm pressure can also help to ease the pain.