8 Things You Need to Know About Sciatica
If you’ve developed sciatica, you might experience pain, tingling, burning or pins and needles anywhere from your buttocks to your toes on the affected side. The pain often worsens when you cough, sneeze or sit still for too long.
With up to 40% of the population likely to experience sciatica at some point in their lifetime, sciatica is very common. Here’s what you need to know about it.
1. Sciatica is a type of nerve pain
The sciatic nerve is the longest and largest nerve in your body. It enables you to move your hamstrings and calf muscles and supplies sensation in your lower legs and feet.
Sciatica is a type of radicular (irritated nerve root) pain that happens when something inside you pinches, irritates or inflames your sciatic nerve’s roots in your lower spine.
That begs the question – what is irritating your sciatic nerve and causing sciatica?
2. Medical conditions can trigger sciatica
Your spine has a complex structure of vertebrae (bones), discs, joints, and nerves. It handles the daily demands of supporting your body impressively well but some conditions do cause shifts within your spine that may pressure your sciatic nerve and cause sciatica.
Those conditions include:
- A slipped disc
- Spondylolisthesis (a slipped vertebrae)
- Piriformis syndrome (tight or swollen muscles in your backside)
Pregnancy (thankfully this has a built-in end date!).
3. Some people are more prone to sciatica
Anyone can get sciatica but you’re more likely to experience it if you:
- Sit still for most of the day, e.g. in an office job or long-distance driving
- Are carrying extra weight since that places greater pressure on your spine
- Do a lot of heavy lifting/twisting as that increases the risk of back injuries
Have age-related changes in your spine such as osteoarthritis.
4. Treatment depends on the cause
The right way to treat your sciatica depends on its underlying cause. Of course, you want help to ease the symptoms of sciatic pain so you can go about your life more freely. But good treatment for sciatica shouldn’t end there.
Sciatica is, ultimately, a type of referred pain. Although you’re experiencing pain in your buttocks, legs or feet, the real issue is somewhere in your back.
Good treatment for sciatica therefore also involves identifying and addressing its underlying cause. That might require imaging tests, input from other health professionals, further treatment or lifestyle changes.
5. Exercise is better than rest
It’s understandable to want to cut back on your activities when you’re in pain.
We don’t recommend that you avoid all movement and exercise with sciatica. Instead, it’s about using the right movements and exercises.
Your body is nourished by movement. Exercise can improve your whole musculoskeletal system and can also improve the flexibility of your sciatic nerve.
So, what should you be doing? Step one is see a physiotherapist who can identify what’s triggering your sciatic pain and prescribe a set of tailored exercises to help ease your symptoms.
6. Work on core strength, posture and stretching
Your physio will give you precise advice tailored to your situation but some of the common exercises for sciatica include those targeting:
- Core strength exercises to improve the structures that support your spine
- Stretches to loosen the lumbar spine and hamstrings.
7. Physiotherapy delivers similar long-term outcomes to surgery for sciatica
If you’ve got really bad sciatica, you need surgery, right? It’s the only way.
Well, no. While you might think surgery is a short-cut to a sciatica-free life, that’s not always the case. In fact, research shows that, over a 4-10 year period, physiotherapy delivers equal results to surgery without the associated risks and costs.
That should encourage you to keep doing your exercises!
8. Get emergency help if…
…you lose control of your bladder or bowels or lose feeling in your feet or in those areas that would touch a saddle if you were riding (e.g. your inner thighs, buttocks, perineum and back of legs).
These can be symptoms of cauda equina syndrome, a serious nerve-related condition that requires urgent medical assessment and, usually, surgery.
How can The Brisbane Spine Clinic help?
If you’re living with it, you probably have many questions about why sciatica flares up, how to relieve sciatica symptoms and when, oh, when will it go away?
We get that. After a thorough assessment, our physiotherapists will sit down with you to explain what’s happening in your body, why that’s triggered sciatica and what can be done about it.
We’ll provide a detailed treatment plan, incorporating progressive exercises to ease your pain and strengthen your body. We’ll also work collaboratively with other members of your healthcare team if you’re receiving treatment for an underlying condition that’s triggered sciatica.
Please make an appointment today.
All information is general in nature. Patients should consider their own personal circumstances and seek a second opinion.