One of the most common misconceptions about sciatica is that it is, in and of itself, a medical condition. Instead, sciatica is the name used for a collection of symptoms that indicate an underlying medical condition that affects the sciatic nerve. Here’s ten of the most common sciatica symptoms you should watch out for.
What causes sciatica?
The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve on the body, attaching to the lumbar spine, traveling deep through the buttocks and down the leg all the way to the feet. Any conditions that cause damage, trauma, or prolonged compression of this nerve can lead to pain.
Many different conditions can cause sciatic pain, including:
- Degenerative disc disease
- Injuries in the spinal column, such as herniated discs, a pinched nerve, or slipped discs
- Injury to the lumbar spine
- Muscle spasms
- Piriformis syndrome
- Spinal stenosis
- In rare cases, tumors and severe infections
The following video goes over sciatica in more detail.
Who suffers from sciatica?
Risk factors such as obesity, a highly physical occupation, pregnancy, and genetics can influence whether or not someone develops sciatic nerve pain as a result of one of the above conditions.
Dr. Axe explains that:
“It’s estimated that 1 percent to 2 percent of all adults experience a herniated disc at some point that leads to sciatic nerve pain. Much more common in men than in women, and more likely to develop in people over the age of 30, sciatic nerve pain can affect both athletes/those are who are very active or people who are more sedentary… In most adults, herniated or slipped discs are the result of years of aging and putting stress on the body, from things like exercise, poor posture, high levels of inflammation and sometimes injuries. As we age, naturally the spinal discs lose their elasticity as spinal fluid decreases, causing the likelihood of experiencing cracks or tears to increase.”
What are the most common sciatica symptoms?
Regardless of the cause of your sciatic pain, there are characteristic symptoms to be on the lookout for. The most common symptoms of sciatica include:
- Pain down the back, buttocks, and one leg
- Pain on one side of the body
- Burning, pins and needles, or sharp sensations
- Hip pain
- Pain that intensifies when sitting, standing, or sneezing
- Numbness in upper thigh
- Tightness in calf or back of thigh
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
Since sciatica shares symptoms with other conditions, like arthritis, it can be difficult to diagnose it. Because of that, it’s always important that you keep detailed notes about the symptoms you’re experiencing to talk to your doctor about them later. Also, people experience sciatica differently. For some, it will be debilitating–affecting every aspect of their lives. Others may only experience pain and other symptoms occasionally.
1. Pain down the back, buttocks, and one leg
A hallmark of sciatica is radiating pain. That is shooting pain that radiates out from the low back and shoots down the leg. The pain may even be more intense as it moves down the leg, where it may become sharper. A doctor will typically think of sciatica if your leg pain is mostly present down one leg, but also felt throughout the lower back.
This pain follows the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve runs deep through both buttocks, and a constant pain, whether dull and achy or sharp and stabbing, is a definite sign that the sciatic nerve may be involved. Mayo Clinic explains:
“Pain that radiates from your lower (lumbar) spine to your buttock and down the back of your leg is the hallmark of sciatica. You might feel the discomfort almost anywhere along the nerve pathway, but it’s especially likely to follow a path from your low back to your buttock and the back of your thigh and calf.”
2. Pain on one side of the body
Another tell-tale symptom of sciatica is that it typically only affects one side of the body. Typically, damage or trauma is confined to one of the nerve roots, so you’ll experience it primarily down one leg, hip, knee, or buttock.
3. Burning, pins and needles, or sharp sensations
One of the first signs of sciatic nerve pain is a low-grade burning feeling in the back, hip, or anywhere down the back of the leg. It may be just a minor annoyance, and it may disappear and then return. If symptoms are not addressed, this burning may spread, worsen, and lead to other symptoms.
Sharp pain of any kind in the body is generally not a good sign, but stabbing or sharp pain in the low back, hip, or radiating down the leg is also a tell-tale indication of sciatica.
Finally, you may also experience pins-and-needles sensations. This feeling resembles the feeling after an extremity “falls asleep” and begins to “wake up.” It is often also described as tingling or like being stung by tiny bees. Pins and needles can occur anywhere along the path of the sciatic nerve.
As sciatic pain progresses, patients may feel numbness anywhere along their back, side of the hip, and down the back of the leg. Extreme numbness can result in a decreased ability to utilize the leg properly.
5. Hip pain
Hip pain is common not only on the side where the sciatica is present but also on the other side of the body. When one side of the body is in pain, it is natural to compensate by shifting weight to the other side. This can result in hip pain on both sides, one related to sciatic pain and the other related to overcompensation for that pain.
6. Pain that intensifies when sitting, standing, or sneezing
There is pain that may occur normally when sitting or standing for a long time. This is creakiness or a slight ache that goes away when you shift your weight or move around. Sciatic pain is different from this in that the pain tends to get stronger the longer you are seated or standing. Shifting position may offer some relief, but it is usually short-lived.
Likewise, some people experience more pain when they cough or sneeze.
Feeling weak in the knees? This is a common sign of sciatica, but weakness associated with sciatic pain can happen anywhere along the leg.
Weakness may be one of the common sciatica symptoms, but progressive weakness that gets worse as time and treatment goes on is another sign of a potentially serious underlying condition. Weakness may be progressive if sciatic nerve pain and its underlying issues are not addressed.
8. Tightness in calf or back of thigh
Tightness can be a muscle reaction to sciatic nerve pain, or it may be a psychological response to anticipated pain. This tightness can also result from misuse, especially if sciatica makes it difficult to stretch or complete daily activity.
9. Numbness in upper thigh
Numbness in your upper thigh can indicate more serious nerve or spinal cord involvement that may eventually leave a patient unable to move their legs. While the condition may not be permanent, immediate medical attention is require to prevent permanent damage to nerves and the spinal cord.
10. Loss of bladder or bowel control
If sciatica patients experience a loss of bladder or bowel control, doctors will treat this as a surgical emergency that requires immediate medical attention. Sciatic pain paired with loss of bladder or bowel control may indicate permanent nerve damage but can be potentially treated with urgent medical attention.
How does a doctor diagnose sciatica?
If you believe you have sciatica, it’s time to talk to a doctor. At eMedicineHealth, they explain that a:
“Health care professional will be able to make the diagnosis based on the patient’s medical history, a physical examination, and description of his or her symptoms. If the patient has had sciatica for only a brief time and has no sign of any other diseases, no lab studies or X-ray films may be needed.”
If additional tests are needed, they may include:
- CT scans or MRI scans of the spine
- X-rays of the back
- Bone scan
- Blood tests, to check for anemia
- Urinalysis to check for kidney stones
Your doctor will work closely with you throughout this process. Make sure to ask them any questions you have, and be as honest as possible about any and all symptoms you’re experiencing.
How long does sciatica last?
These sciatica symptoms can be debilitating, but there is good news. The vast majority of sciatica patients – about 80% – see their symptoms resolve by themselves in about 90 days. Oftentimes, these symptoms go away on their own within a few weeks.
However, always talk to a doctor immediately if you experience any of the following. These symptoms require immediate medical attention, as they can be a sign of a worsening or severe condition.
- Sudden and severe pain in your lower back or limbs
- Severe numbness or muscle weakness
- Pain that occurs after a traumatic incident, such as an automobile accident or fall
- Issues controlling your bladder or bowels
- Long-lasting pain (longer than 90 days) that doesn’t abate with treatment
These could be signs of more severe damage. A doctor can help you treat these, provide pain relief, and prevent worsening symptoms.
What can be done for sciatica?
Do you suffer from any of these common sciatica symptoms, or have you been diagnosed with a condition that might cause them? If so, some good guidelines for sciatica treatment include:
- Aim for prevention: Dr. Weil explains: “The best therapy is prevention. Maintain ideal weight, engage in regular physical activity several times a week, and avoid prolonged sitting as much as possible. Also, carrying a large wallet in the hip pocket of pants can sometimes cause or aggravate sciatica.”
- Don’t stop moving: While limiting activity in the acute and most painful phase of sciatica is often recommended, most doctors advise a return to low-impact exercise as soon as possible. Great options include yoga, Pilates, and walking.
- Use hot and cold therapy: OnHealth explains: “Home remedies for new sciatica include heat-pad or ice-pack applications. Each can be applied for approximately 20 minutes every couple of hours. Some benefit from alternating heat and ice applications.”
- Get sleep: One of the worst side effects of sciatica is that it makes it difficult to sleep. We discuss some ways to make it easier here.
- Try sciatica stretches: You can find stretches in one of our earlier sciatica posts or in this article from HealthLine. A good physical therapy program can also help alleviate underlying causes of your symptoms.
Get professional help
These treatments can help for mild cases, but if you’ve experienced pain for more than a few weeks, or if your pain is severely affecting your quality of life, it’s time to get help. Here’s some of the more advanced treatments for sciatica nerve pain.
- Look over the counter: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can help control inflammation in pain and allow stretching and exercise.
- Talk to your doctor: Don’t ignore your symptoms. A visit to your doctor can help rule out any serious underlying medical conditions. Plus, your doctor can recommend physical therapy or chiropractic care if necessary and help coordinate a holistic treatment plan that includes diet and lifestyle changes.
- Incorporate complementary treatments: While talking to your doctor, they may suggest other complementary treatments to manage your pain. Some of the more common ones include massage, acupuncture, and TENs unit therapy.
If you need help for your sciatica symptoms, you can find a pain doctor in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here: https://paindoctor.com/pain-management-doctors/.