Sciatica is back pain which radiates down into the leg and is caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve. It can be caused by a number of factors although a prolapsed or slipped disc is one of the most common.

Sciatica symptoms

Symptoms of sciatica usually but not always start with acute low back pain with pain radiating down into the buttocks, back of the thigh and lower into the legs. Sciatic pain may be a sharp pain accompanied by tingling, pins and needles or numbness. Sciatica pain is often triggered by a minor movement such as bending over to pick something up and often made worse by sitting, coughing or sneezing.

Pain can be relieved by lying down often on one side. There may be tenderness and muscle spasm in the lower back with trigger points and tenderness in the buttock muscles when pressing in. The straight leg raise test is one test used to diagnose sciatic pain. See sciatica diagnosis for more information.

Sciatic explained

The medical term for sciatica is acute nerve root compression or radiculopathy and is pressure on the sciatic nerve which results in symptoms of numbness, pins and needles and pain. The cause of pressure can be varied from a slipped disc, also known as a herniated or prolapsed disc, disc degeneration which is wear and tear, or muscle tension for example from piriformis syndrome. Rarely something less common such as a tumors, bony growths called stenosis or infections of the spine can cause sciatic symptoms.

Slipped disc

Prolapsed discA prolapsed disc or slipped disc as it is sometimes known is not simply a disc that has 'slipped' out of place. Intervertebral discs separate the bones of the spine (or vertebrae) and their function is to act as shock absorbers or cushioning for the spine and allow movement.

They quite happily allow flexion and extension (bending forwards and backwards), lateral flexion (sideways movement) and twisting. However a combination of the two can put excess stress on the spine and damage the discs. This is particularly common in people who may lift heavy objects and twist with them for example unloading heavy boxes off the back of a lorry.

The intervertebral discs are filled with a gelantinous substance in the middle called nucleus pulposus and when a disc prolapses this jelly-like centre squeezes out and puts pressure on the spinal cord compressing the nerve routes and causing pain.

Depending on where the sciatic nerve is pinched will determine where you feel the pain, which can radiate to the front of the knee or right down the back of the leg to the foot. The L5-S1 disc is the disc most commonly damaged and the L4-L5 disc the next most commonly damaged. L4 and L5 are the bottom two Lumbar vertebrae at the base of the spine. S1 is the top of the Sacrum.

Piriformis syndrome

Piriformis syndromePiriformis is a muscle found deep in the buttocks. The sciatic nerve runs very close to this muscle. Tension in the muscle can cause compression of the sciatic nerve which can cause sciatic pain in the bum and down the leg.

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between sciatic pain caused by a disc problem, or caused by piriformis syndrome. Generally with piriformis syndrome there will not be any lower back pain and there is usually a less well defined point of injury.

Read more on piriformis syndrome here.

Sciatica treatment

Back supportThe treatment of sciatica really depends on the cause of the injury and the extent of the symptoms. Severe cases which are usually caused by a disc prolapse or slipped disc as it is known may require the following. Rest in bed if necessary in a position that is comfortable.

A doctor may prescribe NSAID's (non steroidal anti inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen. Should always be taken under the direction of a doctor and not if the patient has asthma.

Inversion tableApply heat therapy or a hot bath may help to relieve muscle spasm. Use of a heat retainer or back brace can provide support in the early stages. See a sports injury specialist or doctor who may advise starting extension exercises as soon as pain allows.Traction or stretching of the spine may be indicated and the use of an inversion table may help alleviate symptoms.

In less severe cases and those caused by piriformis syndrome, less rest is required. Rest from activities which aggravate the condition only. Keeping moving if possible is important. Gently stretch the hamstrings and buttock muscles (provided this is not painful). Apply heat therapy to help ease muscle spasm. Sports massage usually works particularly well for piriformis syndrome.

Professional sciatica treatment

Ultrasound treatment for back painA professional therapist, osteopath or chiropractor will determine the cause of the sciatica. A doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication e.g. ibuprofen or muscle relaxants if necessary. The may use sports massage to relax tight muscles and gently apply mobilization techniques to the spine. They may apply electrical stimulation in the form of a tens machine or interferential.

In severe cases a simple operation called a discectomy on a slipped disk if neurological signs or nerve related signs continue or worsen. These will start out as numbness or pins and needles but can develop with permanent symptoms and pain.

Pilates exercisesWhether surgery is performed or not a course of pilates exercises to strengthen the core muscles of the trunk is a popular option for managing back conditions.

After the acute painful phase that patient will be encouraged to restore pain free movement to the back through mobilization and stretching techniques. Re-education on posture and correct lifting techniques are learned and maintained.