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Sciatica. What is it?

The word SCIATICA seems to instil fear in patients when it first gets mentioned. Everyone knows a person that has suffered from sciatica at some point in their life, which means that most people have heard the term Sciatica, and whole most people know it has something to do with leg pain very few people actually understand what Sciatica really is.

It’s not uncommon for people to be given the diagnosis of Sciatica, however Sciatica is not a diagnosis but rather a set of symptoms that can include buttock, leg and foot pain that originates from the back.

The goal of this blog is to give you a better understanding what Sciatica is, explain why one might get it and to explore some strategies to prevent it from returning.

What is Sciatica?

As mentioned sciatica is a description of symptoms rather than an actual diagnosis. What that means is – any pain/symptoms that travels from the glute, down the back of the leg to the foot that originate from the back is termed ‘sciatica.’

There are other potential musculoskeletal injuries that can cause a similar pain pattern, clients with these conditions do not have sciatica, even though their symptoms may present like so.

The term sciatica is derived from the sciatica nerve which is the largest single nerve of the body.  It is this nerve that gets ‘irritated’ resulting in this specific set of symptoms. As a result of this irritation one might experience one of more of the following:

  • Sharp pain or a dull ache in the back, glute, back of leg, foot with or without back pain
  • Burning, tingling, pins and needles down the back of the leg
  • Weakness or difficulty moving the leg, foot or toes
  • Pain with sitting (pain may be reduced with the use of a pillow)
  • Pain aggravated by coughing or sneezing

Why do people suffer from Sciatica?

There are numerous reasons why people get sciatica and to cover them all would require countless blogs, but let’s touch on a few in a broad sense.

It’s probably important to mention that sciatica ranges in severity and so too do the conditions that can cause sciatica.  From complete compression of the sciatic nerve which may cause alterations in strength and sensation of the leg to a more localised inflammation which may cause dull radiating pain into the leg. Part of our job is to determine the underlying cause which will ultimately guide the course of treatment.

  • Nerve Root Issues: The nerve root is the exiting portion of nerve that leaves the spinal cord. There are nerve roots for each level of the spine with one exiting each side. Compression and / or irritation of the nerve roots by surrounding structures can result in sciatica.
  • Spinal Stenosis:  This refers to the narrowing of the spinal canal which can place pressure on the sciatic nerve. This is a degenerative condition usually related to osteoarthritic changes of the spine.

    Image highlights a few of the intervertebral disc injuries that can contribute to sciatica

  • Injury of the intervertebral disc: The discs are the shock absorbers in the spine. Injury to these structures can vary from disc degeneration, disc irritation, disc herniation (commonly known as a disc bulge), or a disc rupture all of which have the potential to place pressure on the sciatic nerve.
  • Spondylolisthesis: A condition where one vertebrae slips forward in relation to another. This can often be the result of a stress fracture left untreated in a younger athlete.
  • Neural Irritation: After the nerves exit the spine they have a somewhat complicated pathway as they travel down, under and between all our anatomical structures to supply all the areas of he leg. If the nerve gets irritated or impinged at any point on this pathway you may see sciatic symptoms occurring.

They are just a few very brief descriptions of some issues that can lead to sciatica.

The key to treating sciatica lies in determining the underlying cause. That’s our job. How do we do that? Keep an eye out for next weeks blog which will touch on this.

In the meantime…. any questions? Feel free to email us or contact us via social media.

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