The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body; it roots in the lower back and travels down the leg to the foot on each side. This nerve is responsible for sending motor impulses to the lower body and transmitting sensory information back to the brain.
When the sciatic nerve becomes compressed or inflamed, sciatica results. The experience of this condition is usually of intermittent or constant shooting pain felt radiating from the lower back down into the buttocks and leg, sometimes as far down the nerve path as the foot. Sciatica can significantly limit your activity and enjoyment of life. Luckily, there are numerous treatments for this painful condition.
Causes of Sciatica
The sciatic nerve can become compressed or inflamed in the following ways:
Piriformis Syndrome : The piriformis muscle runs horizontally from the lumbar spine to the upper thighbone on each side of the body and is located deep in the rear. The sciatic nerve runs beneath this muscle. If the piriformis becomes tight or begins to spasm, it places pressure on the nerve.
Displaced Vertebra: If injury or disc wear causes a vertebra to move out of position, the bone could press on the sciatic nerve.
Spinal Stenosis: This condition entails the narrowing of the spinal canal, the space within the spinal column that runs its length and, in the upper half of the spine, contains the spinal cord. When the canal narrows, the nerve roots within are impinged. Spinal stenosis can occur in a number of ways. Arthritis of the vertebral joints can create bone spurs that grow into the spinal canal. Degenerated or herniated discs may ooze their fluids into the canal, narrowing its width. Ligaments stiffen and thicken over time; those that help to support the spine may thicken and bulge into the canal. Other causes include tumors and infection. Stenosis present in the lumbar spine often impinges the sciatic nerve.
Degenerative Disc Disease: Discs degenerate as a natural part of aging. When a disc wears, it is susceptible to bulging or herniation. These conditions can cause sciatica.
Injury: A hard fall on the bum causes damage to the muscles and ligaments in the area. The body sees injured areas as potential threats to the rest of the body and blocks them off. A rush of white blood cells and inflammatory proteins are delivered to the injury site. These help to repair damaged tissues, but more inflammation is present than is helpful. Excess inflammation around the lower back and hip can cause temporary sciatica.
Treatments for Sciatica
Treatment for sciatica pain varies depending on the exact cause of the condition.
Massage Therapy: Massage is a great way to treat muscle-related sciatica, such as piriformis syndrome. Massage techniques involving focus on the tissues surrounding muscles and the dissolution of knots called trigger points are used to reduce tension and spasms within the piriformis muscle. Generally, the masseuse starts with static pressure applied to the area, creating initial muscle relaxation. Then, more concentrated force is applied. Heat can also be used to assist in the relaxation of tense muscles.
Exercise Therapy: This is the most promising treatment option for almost all types of sciatica. There are a number of exercise programs tailored to specific causes of sciatica. Strengthening muscles that are weak in the core will help to take pressure off of discs that are out of shape, allowing them to return to their normal shape and reabsorb their fluids. A strong core also helps to hold vertebrae in their proper position. Certain stretches effectively enlarge the width of the spinal canal, offering relief to those with stenosis. Trained physical therapists can teach people to readjust their posture and retrain their movements in a way that frees the sciatic nerve from irritation. See Spine-Health.com for outlines of exercise programs for each cause of sciatica.
Acupuncture: This form of Ancient Chinese Medicine has existed far longer than our western treatment methods. It operates under the principle that energy fields run through the body and that pain is caused when a field is obstructed. Needles are placed at certain points along the energy meridians to unblock essential pathways. Acupuncture has survived several thousand years as a treatment plan due to the accounts of its efficacy in managing pain.
There are a number of ways to treat sciatica; the first step is to identify the cause of yours. Be sure to know the difference between nerve pain and muscle pain; muscular problems can cause pain to radiate into the buttocks and legs but may have nothing to do with the sciatic nerve. If the cause cannot be identified with certainty, you may wish to consider embarking upon a well-balanced core workout. Ask your doctor for a referral to an exercise therapist and make sure your technique is safe for a person with back pain.