The Pain of Sciatica
Discomfort in your legs or feet may be originating in your lower spine.

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The Pain of Sciatica

The largest nerve in the human body is the sciatic nerve. It starts in the lower back and branches down the buttocks and into the legs and feet. When the roots of this nerve become pinched or are under pressure, you may feel sharp or dull pain, numbness, tingling or weakness at various points along the nerve.

This symptom is called sciatica. It usually affects just one side of your body. Usually, people with sciatica also have low back pain, though sometimes sciatica occurs alone.

Sciatica is most common in people aged 45 to 64. It can occur because of daily wear and tear on your back. Or it might be the result of an injury or sudden pressure on the disks in your back that provide cushion in your spine. The discomfort can last for weeks.

Diagnosis and treatment
Your doctor will likely perform a history and/or a physical exam. If he or she suspects an underlying problem or if your case is severe, he or she may order imaging tests and/or laboratory tests. The cause is often a herniated disk that pinches or irritates the roots of the sciatic nerve. About one in 50 people are affected by this condition at some time in their lives.

Sciatica typically heals itself with rest and time. Most cases do not require surgery. Treatment may include medications, physical therapy and applying heat or ice at your point of pain. Your doctor may consider a steroid-like injection in your spine.

It's important to be as physically active as you can, because moving can help reduce inflammation. Avoid too much twisting and bending. If your pain persists, your doctor or physical therapist may prescribe specific exercises to help you heal.

Extreme cases
In a small percentage of cases, the pain may persist for three months or longer. Surgery may be required if your discomfort does not respond to medicines or physical therapy.

If you feel numbness or tingling in your groin area, or if you suddenly lose control of your bladder or bowel functions, see your doctor immediately. These symptoms need to be evaluated and may require emergency surgery.

So, depending on your symptoms, treatment for sciatica can include:

  • Time and rest
  • Exercises to strengthen your back when appropriate
  • Medications
  • Physical therapy
  • A spinal injection
  • Heat and ice
  • Surgery, in a small amount of cases
By Ginny Greene, Editor
Created on 01/15/2007
Updated on 04/21/2014
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Low back pain fact sheet.
  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Sciatica.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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