Sciatica: Everything you need to know about this painful condition

Could the pain you’re experiencing be sciatica? We explain more about the condition.

Causing pain, discomfort and numbness, sciatica is a painful condition to live with. But help is out there.

Spencer Harland, Consultant Neurosurgeon at Spire Parkway Hospital, explains more about the symptoms, causes and treatment of this nerve condition.

What is sciatica? 

“Sciatica is a condition characterised by pain, numbness and tingling along the length of the sciatica nerve. The sciatic nerves are the largest in the body and run on both sides from the lower back, through the buttocks, backs of the thighs and into the calves and feet. The pain is usually felt in the buttock and down the back of the leg.”

What causes sciatica? 

“Sciatica is caused by irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve in the lower back, most commonly from a slipped disc and occasionally a benign cyst. The pain can range from being mild to very painful. While people with sciatica often experience back pain at the beginning, the back pain frequently settles as the buttock and leg becomes more troublesome.”

 What treatment is available for those who have sciatica? 

“Most cases of sciatica pass in around six weeks without the need for treatment invasive treatment. Your GP may prescribe anti-inflammatory pain killers or suggest a course of physiotherapy, chiropractic or osteopathy. If your pain is not settling quickly, then you may be referred for an MRI scan to confirm that you do have a slipped disc. An X-ray guided injection around the sciatic nerve may help to settle the pain. Surgery is very effective at relieving the pain, but isn’t required for the majority of patients.”

What can I do to prevent sciatica?

“For the majority of patients, there’s not an obvious cause for developing sciatica. However, if you work at a desk, it’s important to adopt a good posture and take regular breaks. If you have a manual job, using the correct lifting techniques is essential. Exercising regularly will keep the muscles supporting the spine much stronger and more efficient. When sleeping, ensure the mattress is firm enough to support your body while also supporting the weight of your shoulders and buttocks - this helps keep your spine straight. Support your head with a pillow, but make sure your neck isn't forced up at a steep angle.”

Is there anything I should avoid if I have sciatica? 

“Generally, try to avoid activities that make your pain worse. Try to keep mobile, but avoid activities such as lifting, twisting and running. Rarely you may notice weakness in your ankle or difficulty passing urine, in which case you should seek medical advice as a matter of urgency.”

 What help is out there?

“If your sciatica persists for over three weeks, you should visit your GP for advice. While ‘Dr Google’ may have some of the answers, you’re much better off getting expert medical advice before setting off on ‘possible cures’ you’ve read about on the internet.”

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