Updated March 2016
The Sciatic Nerve
The sciatic nerve is well known for its contribution to lower back pain. When it is irritated, its presence is very noticeable. This is because of where it travels in the body. It is the longest nerve in the body. It originates and exits from the bottom of the spinal column as a group of 5 to 6 smaller nerves. These nerves then combine to form the large nerve that travels down through the hip and down to the bottom of your leg. There is one nerve for each side of the body.
Pain from sciatica can be felt anywhere from the lower lumbar and sacral nerves, passing through the buttocks, down the thigh, leg and foot. People may be led to believe that sciatica is a medical condition. It is not. It is actually a way of describing the symptoms felt when pressure is applied in the lumbar region but felt on any part of this nerve from the lumbar column to the foot.
A Common Cause of Sciatica
One common cause of sciatica is from lumbar disc bulge. Too much pressure on your disc can cause the disc wall to weaken. As it weakens, part of the wall bulges out toward the nerve, causing nerve pain and numbness. It is usually the last two discs in the lumbar spine, the L4-L5 and the L5-S1. These discs compress the L4, L5 and S1 nerve roots.
To help identify this type of sciatic pain, you can perform the following test:
- Sit on a table or chair without leaning against the back rest
- Begin with upright posture and your legs bent at right angles
- Your thigh should be level with the seat and the shins vertical
- Keeping your thigh on the seat, straighten the leg which has pain symptoms, elevating the foot
If you detect any pain and require leaning backward into order to reduce the pain symptoms, then you have a possible pinched nerve.
Extending the knee causes a pull on the sciatic nerve. If it is pinched, then the pull of the stretch will cause pain.
If your facet joint becomes irritated and swollen, this increase in size can cause similar nerve symptoms also. When there is degenerative disc disease, the disc and vertebrae can amplify the pressure. Degenerative conditions include osteophyte formation and osteoarthritic conditions. These changes also contribute to pain symptoms.
There are situations where sciatica is temporary, such as pregnancy and hormonal changes that increases swelling in the area of the nerve.
Pain can range from slight discomfort to a sharp, persistent and debilitating sensation. The symptom depends on which part of the nerve is compressed. If the nerve is affected for long time, the muscle that this nerve itself supplies may weaken and show deficiencies.
If this condition is allowed to progress, the nerve can become damaged and one may not be able to lift the forepart of the foot. Other problems of the foot include not being able to push off on the toes. A problem with walking may occur where there is ‘foot drop’. This is where your foot may drop or drag on the ground as you walk.
A large muscle of the buttock, known as the Piriformis muscle runs over this muscle. Injury, swelling and tightness of this muscle can irritate this nerve, triggering a sciatic condition known as Piriformis Syndrome. There are some excellent exercises available to alleviate this condition.
Other Causes of Sciatica
- Disc rupture
- Osteophyte formation
- Pregnancy and hormones
- Poor lifting
- Excess weight
- Incorrect exercise and movements
- Poor back support
- Poor muscle conditioning
- Piriformis syndrome
Here are some suggestions for help with sciatica.
Tips for Sciatica
- If you have sharp pain, then stop and rest. Do not continue with your activity
- Lie down stretched out on your stomach or sides when your symptoms worsen
- Use a cool pack against the lumbar area
- Take an anti-inflammatory but only as a needed
- Use a warm pack if the symptoms are not relieved with the cool pack
- See your family doctor or health care professional
- When symptoms are manageable perform simple stretches to relieve muscle tightness
- Improve your flexibility and tightness in your buttocks areas to relieve nerve pressure
Exercise has been demonstrate to provide safe, easy and effective treatment for conditions of sciatica. It helpsto correct the imbalances on the lumbar discs and recondition the muscles affected by the sciatic nerve. It also helps to correct the pressure that the muscles themselves put on the sciatic nerve.
If you are looking for an easy, careful and long term plan to help with your issues of sciatica and lower back pain, it is highly recommended that you commit to the Low Back Pain Program. It provides the necessary exercises and stretches beneficial to relieving sciatica symptoms.
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