Shooting pains in the buttocks and legs, difficulty walking, and not even being able to sit comfortably are just a few of the tell-tale signs of sciatic nerve pain. In the most serious cases, this condition, also called sciatica, can result in debilitating neuropathic symptoms and excruciating pain. Whether you have just been diagnosed with a condition causing sciatica or have been living with it for years, this guide will help you better understand this condition and take steps for effective long-term management and relief.
What Is The Sciatic Nerve?
The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body, starting in the lumbar spine, traveling through the buttocks down the back of the legs and into the feet. This nerve, which is actually a group of smaller nerves, is essential to sending sensory and motor information to the lower body.
What Is Sciatica?
Sciatica describes a collection of symptoms caused by compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve, including lower back pain, shooting pains down the buttocks and hips and neuropathic symptoms like tingling, numbness and muscle weakness in the legs and toes. In more extreme situations, sciatic nerve pain can cause a pronounced limp and foot drop in patients.
Sciatica or sciatica-like symptoms can be caused by any injury or condition that disrupts or puts pressure on the sciatic nerve, including:
- Herniated discs or bulging discs in the lower spine
- Spinal arthritis, also called facet disease
- Injury of the piriformis muscle in the buttocks
- Pressure on the sciatic nerve due to pregnancy.
Diagnosing Sciatic Nerve Pain
Sciatic nerve pain requires careful diagnosis, as it can be confused with other conditions. Anyone experiencing sciatica-like symptoms should see their primary physician or pain specialist for an in-depth diagnosis involving the following steps:
- Discussion of symptoms
- Review of medical history
- Movement tests and physical examination
- Diagnostic imagery, such as an MRI
- Diagnostic injections such as nerve blocks
It’s important to correctly identify the source of symptoms in order to effectively treat sciatic nerve pain. For example, a temporary injury such as a strained piriformis muscle will require different care than a longer-term chronic condition such as a herniated disc.
Can You Fix Sciatic Nerve Pain?
The long-term outlook for sciatic nerve pain depends on the cause. Temporary causes like an injury or pregnancy-related sciatic nerve pressure should improve with time and can eventually go away. Chronic, age-related conditions that cause sciatica like spinal arthritis or degenerative spinal discs are non-reversible and can be much harder to manage.
Practical Steps to Manage Your Sciatic Nerve Pain
Although no two cases of sciatic nerve pain are the same, and you should always work closely with a medical professional to create a personalized care plan, the following basic steps have helped many people find relief from sciatica.
1. Practice Basic At-Home Treatments
For most milder cases of sciatic nerve pain, doctors will recommend basic conservative therapies. This will include:
- Alternating cold compression, such as an ice pack, with heat therapy, such as heating pad
- Gentle stretching in the lower back and legs
- Taking over-the-counter medication, such as a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like naproxen or ibuprofen
2. Stay Active and Eat a Healthy Diet
Certain lifestyle factors can increase the frequency and severity of sciatic nerve pain. This includes extra weight that puts pressure on the spine, being overly sedentary which causes weaker supporting muscles, and eating an inflammatory diet. Any sciatic nerve pain treatment plan should address these factors through regular low-impact exercise, an anti-inflammatory diet and other steps such as practicing good posture or quitting smoking.
3. Try Physical Therapy
Physical therapy is an effective, focused treatment program that can help reduce pain and improve function in the lumbar spine and lower body for people with sciatica. A licensed physical therapist can perform techniques such as manual therapy and provide instruction on therapeutic exercises that can strengthen supporting muscles, relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve and increase mobility.
4. Explore Pain Management Injections
Although exercise and physical therapy can be great ways to improve range of motion and take pressure off the sciatic nerve, for many, sciatica can be too severe to be active or complete a course of therapy. Pain management injections, such as an epidural steroid injection, can provide relief over a period of weeks or months to enable increased levels of activity. For many patients, a combination of lifestyle changes, pain management injections and physical therapy is an ideal combination to manage or even overcome sciatic nerve pain.
5. Know When to Consider Surgery
Surgery can become a serious option for sciatic nerve pain if there is an operable condition that has not responded to a full course of nonsurgical treatment. For example, if a herniated disc is putting pressure on the sciatic nerve and a full course of conservative therapy and interventional pain management has not improved symptoms, minimally invasive spine surgery may be able to help. Using muscle-sparing techniques, highly skilled surgeons can perform an outpatient procedure that removes displaced disc material and takes pressure off the sciatic nerve.
Let PPOA Help You Manage Sciatic Nerve Pain
No matter where you are in your sciatic treatment journey, Physician Partners of America can help. Our caring experts can assist you in creating an effective plan for long-term relief based on your lifestyle and specific diagnosis. From interventional pain management to minimally invasive spine surgery, our highly skilled medical professionals can help you get your life back.
You can overcome sciatica, contact us today to learn more.