Sciatica

Sciatica is pain caused by irritation or pressure against the nerve roots of the sciatic nerve. People with sciatica usually have a shooting pain down the back of the leg, but also may have leg weakness, tingling, or numbness.

The sciatic nerve is formed by the nerve roots coming out of the spinal cord into the lower back (lumbar region). Branches of the sciatic nerve extend through the buttocks and down the back of each leg to the ankle and foot.

Sciatica is usually caused by a bulging or ruptured (herniated) spinal disc that presses against one or more of the nerve roots that form the sciatic nerve. Pregnancy is also a common cause of the condition. Bone spurs (from arthritis or spinal stenosis), compressed nerve roots (usually a result of an injury), and certain rare tumors may also cause sciatica.

Symptoms may become worse from sitting, prolonged standing, and moving in ways that flex the spine (such as curl-ups and knee-to-chest exercises). Increased pressure from sneezing, coughing, having a bowel movement, or straining for a heavy lift or while laboring to deliver a baby can also increase symptoms. Walking, lying down, and moving in ways that extend the spine (such as press-ups and shoulder lifts) may relieve symptoms.

Treatment depends on what is causing the nerve irritation. Heat or cold therapy (applying ice or a cold pack to the lower back) or physical therapy are often used to help relieve pain.

Last Updated: July 21, 2008

Author: Shannon Erstad, MBA/MPH

Medical Review: William M. Green, MD - Emergency Medicine & Robert B. Keller, MD - Orthopedics

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