Sciatica - Signs, Symptoms, And Causes

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Radiating pain from your lower back down your leg, on one side of your body?

While you must never self-diagnose any medical condition, this could be sciatica, a type of back nerve pain. So, we decided to create a 101 guide on sciatica, its symptoms and causes.

Sciatica is a common ailment in adults over 30, and yet it is a very specific kind of discomfort. So, we decided to write a detailed guide for those of you who wish to know and understand more about sciatica causes and symptoms, and the treatments you can seek; thus, improving your chances of recovery.

This condition commonly results from either an injury, irritation or pressure on your sciatic nerve, which causes back nerve pain that can be mild to extremely severe. Hence, its name - Sciatica. For those of you who are curious, the Sciatic nerve is the longest and thickest in your body. Up to 2 cms wide, it’s not one single nerve, despite its name. Instead, it is a bundle of nerves that is formed by five nerve roots that branch off from your spine.

There are two such bundles and each extends from your lower back through the hips and buttocks, down each of your legs, until just below your knee. After that they split into other nerves that connect to your lower leg, foot, toes etc.

While studying sciatica, causes and symptoms, prognosis etc. it is often observed that it most commonly affects only one side of your body.

Along with pain of varying severity, sciatica symptoms can even include numbness, tingling, or loss of sensation in your back, butt, or down your leg. Usually, it feels like the pain is radiating from your lower back, and it is possible to experience more severe symptoms as well.

Typically, sciatica symptoms affect only one side of your body and is most prevalent in individuals between the ages of 30 and 50. Understanding sciatica thoroughly can help individuals identify potential symptoms early and seek appropriate treatment, improving the chances of recovery.

Types of sciatica

There are two types of sciatica. No matter which type you suffer from, the effects on your body are one and the same. These two types are known as True Sciatica, and Sciatica-like-condition.

In the first case, an injury or another condition impacts your sciatic nerve directly. In the other, your condition feels like sciatica, but it occurs for reasons that are not related to the sciatic nerve, or any of the bundle nerves. While sciatica causes and symptoms are similar in both cases, your treatment can vary based on which kind of sciatica you suffer from.

Are sciatica symptoms common?

Sciatica is very common!

Approximately up to 43% people in India (source -) experience some form of sciatica symptoms in their lifetime. However, sciatica rarely occurs in individuals younger than 20, unless due to an injury.

Signs and symptoms of sciatica

Understanding the uniqueness of the sciatica signs and symptoms is important for early diagnosis and treatment. The symptoms can vary in intensity and cause you anywhere between mild discomfort to severe debilitating pain, thus making even your daily activities difficult.

Some of the most common symptoms of sciatica are listed below:

  • Sharp pain: Sciatic pain is not just any back pain. It is described as severe and sharp and travels along the sciatic nerve. It can make sitting down or standing up overwhelmingly painful and difficult. A lot of patients also describe this sensation as shooting or stabbing pain, burning sensation, or like an electric shock.
  • Pain that worsens with movement: Sudden and jerky movements like a cough, or a sneeze, etc. can intensify your pain. The pain can also worsen if you twist your body, or bend or lift your legs upwards when lying on your back.
  • Constant pain on one side: Unlike other types of lower back pain, sciatica typically affects only one side of your body. This localized pain can vary in its severity. It might range from just a mild ache to a sharp burning sensation. However, it's overwhelmingly constant in its presence.
  • Numbness or tingling (paresthesia): These sensations might occur in your leg or even up to your foot and toes in the affected side. This depends on where your sciatic nerve is compressed.
    This sciatica symptom can be of varying intensity and can feel like ‘pins and needles’. It can also feel similar to how a leg falls asleep when we sit cross-legged.
    Sometimes you might not even be able to feel sensation on the skin in the affected areas because the signals from your leg or your back are not reaching your brain due to the nerve compression.
  • Muscular weakness: This is a more severe symptom. You might feel weakness in your leg muscles thus facing difficulty in movement, or in lifting objects. Your ability to balance your body may also be affected in this case. 
  • Incontinence: Whether urinary or fecal, this is a very severe symptom. This indicates that not only the signals from your leg or your back, but also those that control your bladder or bowels aren’t being transmitted appropriately.

What causes sciatica?

In this section, we will discuss what causes sciatica. On one hand, injuries, tumours, cysts and other growths, or infections that impact the spine can cause sciatica. On the other hand, some of the most common sciatica causes include situations like herniated disk, bone spurs, spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, osteoarthritis, and even pregnancies.

  • Herniated Disk: The disks in the spine act as cushions between vertebrae, but sometimes a disk may herniate. In such a situation, it can press on a nerve, and might cause sciatica. This is the singular most common cause of sciatica.
  • Bone Spurs: As you age, sometimes small bony projections called bone spurs develop along the edges of the bones. When such spurs form on the spine, they might encroach upon the space where nerves are supposed to be. This can irritate the nerves and cause sciatica.
  • Spinal stenosis: In this condition, the spinal canal narrows in the area where the nerves pass through. This applies the pressure on the nerves, including the sciatic nerve. Often it leads to nerve compression and a lot of pain.
  • Spondylolisthesis: In this condition, one vertebra slips out of place. It then slips onto the vertebra below it and pinches the sciatic nerve in the process.
  • Pregnancy: The extra weight and pressure of a growing foetus can also cause sciatica during pregnancy because of the pressure on the sciatic nerve.

Sometimes, the exact sciatica causes remain unknown, but here are some other medical situations that might cause sciatica are degenerative disk disease, conus medullas syndrome, foraminal stenosis, and cauda equina syndrome.

Possible complications

While most people recover easily from sciatica, if not treated in time, it can cause long-term nerve damage. It may cause chronic pain, or weakness in lower limbs such as ‘drop foot’. It may even lead to numbness, or loss of feeling or movement in the affected leg in severe cases. In extreme situations like cauda equina syndrome, it might even lead to bowel or bladder incontinence, and it might need immediate medical attention.

When to see a doctor.

  • If you suspect that you may be suffering from symptoms of sciatica, you should not self-diagnose. You should consult a doctor if: If your pain is persistent and doesn’t improve within 7 days even with self-care. Or, if it worsens.
  • When and if you have sudden and severe pain, you should seek medical support and care.
  • If you experience muscle weakness in your leg, or numbness, tingling, or pins-and-needles sensations in your back, leg or toes.
  • If there’s a violent injury, or an accident, and you experience pain after that.
  • You have difficulty controlling your bladder or bowels.

Timely intervention by a medical professional can prevent the condition from increasing. Thus, it reduces risk of permanent damage to your body due to symptoms of sciatica.

What to expect if you have sciatica?

When you consult a doctor about symptoms of sciatica, they'll usually ask you about your pain and examine your condition physically. They may request an MRI, CT Scan, or an X-ray to see your spine, and to see if there might be any causes of sciatica.

You can expect the doctor to check your spine, your muscle strength, and reflexes to see how your nerve impulses are traveling to and from your brain.

They may also ask about your medical history. How long have you been experiencing symptoms of sciatica, how frequent and severe is the pain, and how it affects your everyday life are all important pieces of information for your doctor.

You can expect your doctor to first diagnose you properly, and if it is confirmed that you have sciatica, they will advise you about prognosis, treatment, and about how to care for yourself.

In milder cases of sciatica, usually self-care, rest, and time are sufficient for recovery. Only in 10% - 20% patients, a surgery is required. So, you can expect significant to full recovery in milder cases. However, only your doctor can tell you the exact treatment plan for sciatica that is suitable for you.

Outlook / prognosis for sciatica.

Overall, the outlook for sciatica is very good. Most people do not suffer from long-term issues, and can recover significantly or even fully, unless they have severe symptoms.

In fact, in the majority of cases surgery is not required, and just physiotherapy, exercise, anti-inflammatory medicine is advised, and people can recover and avoid further complications. Only in cases where conservative treatment options fail, surgical options are considered by the doctor.

The treatment and cures for sciatica causes and symptoms usually focus on decreasing pain and increasing mobility. A majority of them are about self-care options like ice packs, heating pads, warm compress, or even switching between the two. You might also want to do stretches, exercises, physiotherapy, yoga, etc. under supervision initially and later by yourself.

Any medicines, anti-inflammatory drugs etc. however, should be consumed only under medical supervision. Also, remember that when your sciatica symptoms are severe like numbness, tingling, muscle weakness etc. then you must seek medical care and not try to treat them yourself.

How Long Does Sciatica Last?

Most people feel better soon after they begin conservative treatment and management. In most cases, recovery starts within a few weeks or months. In some cases, however, symptoms of sciatica pain can last longer.

The duration of this back nerve pain can vary from patient to patient. The exact recovery depends on the underlying sciatica causes and symptoms severity , and the treatment approach. Make sure that you stick closely to your treatment plan and maintain regular follow-ups with your doctor to ensure fast recovery.

When To Resume Work With Sciatica?

Returning to work depends on two major factors – the nature of your job, and the severity of your symptoms. If your work demands a lot of physical activity, your doctor might advise you to take a longer break. If it includes long hours of sitting, or use of laptop etc. your doctor might recommend a few in-between exercises for you. Honestly, there’s no standard answer to this question and the best person to advise you is your doctor.

Why Choose Axis Clinics For Treatment And Management Of Sciatica?

The important thing about causes, symptoms, and management of sciatica is to understand that it needs a holistic approach. It’s best done under medical supervision, and must include treatment, medicines, therapy, exercise, and self-care in a combination that is unique to each patient.

At Axis clinics, we have a team of experts that specialise in sciatica and other spine-related conditions. We are equipped with advanced diagnostic techniques to find out what causes sciatica in your specific case. We are highly trained in creating personalised treatment plans to help you regain your normal function and improve your quality of life.

At Axis Clinics, we are committed to helping you achieve sciatica pain relief and improve your overall function so you can return to your normal activities as quickly and safely as possible.

FAQs

Understanding sciatica's signs, symptoms, and causes can help you take the first steps toward recovery. Always consult with healthcare professionals for a diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan. Remember, early intervention can help prevent complications and speed up recovery.

This comprehensive guide to understanding, identifying, and treating sciatica is designed to help you recognize the early signs and take appropriate steps to ensure a swift recovery. Always remember that early diagnosis and treatment are key in preventing complications associated with sciatica.

Can sciatica affect both legs?

Usually, symptoms of sciatica are seen in only one leg at a time, but in rare cases, it may occur in both legs.

Is sciatica sudden, or ongoing?

Sciatica can occur both suddenly and gradually, depending on the cause. A disk hernia, or an injury is a sudden cause of sciatica, but arthritis, or degenerative conditions are gradual causes of sciatica.

How can I tell if pain in my hip is sciatica pain or a hip issue?

Typically, pain caused by hip problems is usually experienced in groin region. But if the pain starts in your back and radiates or moves down one of your legs through your hip, it’s a symptom of sciatica. Also, observe if you have muscle weakness, tingling, or numbness

How much should I rest if I have symptoms of sciatica?

Rest is necessary, even helpful during the initial phases of back nerve pain. But total rest and physical inactivity can worsen your pain, and your healing can slow down. So, the best way is to find a balance.

Can sciatica cause swelling in my leg and/or ankle?

Depending on the causes of sciatica, sometimes there can be inflammation or swelling in the affected limb.

What precautions can I take?

There are various risk factors to sciatica. Some of the major ones are injury, age-related normal wear-and-tear, insufficient core strength, jobs that demand a lot of physical activity and awkward or unusual postures, not having good form and posture, obesity, diabetes, physical inactivity etc.

In some cases, even use of tobacco can cause sciatica, because use of nicotine can affect circulation, and can increase the risk of chronic pain especially in conditions like sciatica.

Can I prevent sciatica?

In some cases, the causes of sciatica can be prevented. In other cases, that may not happen. However, if you take the precautions listed above, and consult a medical expert in time, you can certainly prevent sciatica from getting severe.