Sciatica, also called lumbar radiculopathy, is a pain and inflammation that originates along your sciatic nerve, which is the main nerve in your leg. This condition is typically caused by a herniated disc in the spine that presses on the nerve.

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Understanding Sciatica

What is sciatica?

Sciatica, also called lumbar radiculopathy, is a pain that originates along your sciatic nerve. This nerve extends from the back of your pelvis down the back of your thigh. Your sciatic nerve is the main nerve in your leg. It is also the largest nerve in your entire body.

What causes sciatica?

Usually, sciatica is caused by a herniated, or bulging, disc in your spine that presses on your sciatic nerve.

Other reasons for pressure on your sciatic nerve may include:

  • Obesity.

  • Poor posture.

  • Tumor.

  • Abscess.

  • Blood clot.

  • Awkward sitting position.

  • Any nerve disorders.

Health conditions such as diabetes or Lyme disease can cause symptoms of sciatica. Sometimes, the cause for your sciatica can't be identified.

What are the symptoms of sciatica?

These are the most common symptoms of sciatica:

  • Lower back pain that radiates or spreads down your buttock and the back of one thigh.

  • Pain that extends from your buttock down to your foot.

  • Numbness (in severe cases).

  • Weakness (in severe cases).

The symptoms of sciatica may look like other conditions or health problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is sciatica diagnosed?

Along with a complete medical history and physical exam, tests for sciatica may include:

  • MRI. Large magnets, radio waves, and a computer to make detailed images of organs and structures in your body.
  • Electromyography and nerve conduction study (EMG and NCS). A procedure done together to record and analyze electrical impulses in your muscles. During the EMG, thin needles are placed in your muscle to record electrical activity. The NCS is often done along with the EMG to determine if a nerve is working normally. Electrodes are then placed in various locations on your skin along the nerve pathway. When stimulating the nerve at various places, your healthcare provider can then determine the specific site of your injury.

How is sciatica treated?

Sciatica usually heals on its own with rest and time. To help relieve the pain, treatment may include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) medicines such as ibuprofen.

  • Heat or cold applied to the sore muscles.

  • Movement (keeping your body in motion minimizes inflammation).

  • Osteopathic manipulation.

  • Surgery (to repair your herniated disc, if the condition persists).

What are the possible complications of sciatica?

Because sciatica is caused by pressure on a nerve in your spine, complications may develop if the pressure is not relieved. Possible complications of unrelieved nerve compression include:

  • Increased pain.

  • A slipped or herniated disc.

  • Loss of feeling or weakness in your affected leg.

  • Loss of bowel or bladder function.

  • Permanent nerve damage.

When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider if:

  • You develop back pain when you have a history of cancer.

  • Your pain worsens.

  • You lose feeling in your affected leg or notice weakness in your leg.

  • You develop problems with your bowels or bladder.

  • Your pain returns after successful treatment of your sciatica.

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