What is sciatica?
You’ve probably heard people saying they have sciatica – and if you’ve had back pain, you might have even wondered if you’ve got it yourself. Sciatica is a commonly used (and occasionally abused) term - but what does it actually mean?
The sciatic nerve is the largest in diameter in your body and when it's in trouble the pain can be excruciating
The word sciatica describes a set of symptoms, including lower back, buttock, hip, leg and foot pain as well as numbness, weakness, "pins and needles" or tingling in these areas.
THE SYMPTOMS ARE DUE TO IRRITATION OF THE SCIATIC NERVE, A LARGE NERVE ABOUT THE SAME CIRCUMFERENCE AS YOUR LITTLE FINGER THAT STARTS IN YOUR LOW BACK AND TRAVELS DOWN THE LEG TO THE FOOT, SUPPLYING POWER TO MUSCLES AND SENSATION TO SKIN ALONG THE WAY. SO, WHILE THE TERM SCIATICA DESCRIBES THE SYMPTOMS, SCIATICA IS NOT A DIAGNOSIS BY ITSELF – THE DIAGNOSIS COMES FROM FIGURING OUT WHAT IS IRRITATING THE NERVE IN THE FIRST PLACE – AND THERE’S QUITE A FEW POTENTIAL CAUSES! HERE ARE A FEW OF THE MOST COMMON CAUSES:
If one of your lumbar discs is bulging or herniated, it can press on and irritate part of the nerve as it exits the spinal cord.
As we get older, our spines often start to exhibit age-related changes, occasionally growing bone spurs, or just starting to narrow and compress the spinal cord, thus pinching and irritating nerves as they exit the spine.
The sciatic nerve passes very close to a muscle at the back of your pelvis, called the piriformis. When the muscle shortens or spasms, it can compress the sciatic nerve, causing symptoms down the leg.
During pregnancy, the weight of the foetus can press onto the sciatic nerve. While it’s not harmful to the baby, it can be very frustrating for expectant mothers!
Also there’s “wallet sciatica”, caused by sitting down with an over-stuffed wallet in your back pocket, thus compressing the nerve as it passes around the back of the pelvis. There’s a simple solution for this one!
However, there are a lot of other conditions which can cause very similar symptoms. As osteopaths, we are trained to be able to determine the most likely cause of your symptoms, whether it is something relatively simple, or a more complex condition that might require further specialist attention.
At your appointment, we’ll make a diagnosis, then discuss treatment options with you. Treatment will usually involve the application of some gentle and very effective osteopathic techniques to calm the irritation in the area and relieve pressure on the nerve. We can advise you on what you should and shouldn’t be doing, and offer you some simple stretches and exercises to continue the healing process on your own time.
We are able to send you for an x-ray if we think it will give us information helpful in the management of your symptoms, and we can refer you for further specialist attention if needed.