What Does Sciatica Mean and Why is it Often Misunderstood?

TreatmentsSpinal ConditionsSciatica

Many people with back pain that radiates down their legs know they’re experiencing sciatica. But what does sciatica actually mean? The term itself is widely misunderstood and so are its treatments, according to Kaliq Chang, MD of Atlantic Spine Center, who is board-certified in interventional pain management and anesthesiology.

“Sciatica is commonly used to describe nerve-like pain traveling down the legs, often from compression of the nerves as they exit the spine,” Dr. Chang explains. Every person with sciatica is dealing not only with back pain, but often-excruciating discomfort fanning down the length of one or both legs.

Sciatica accounts for a small proportion – about 5% to 10% – of all lower back pain, despite the fact that up to 8 in 10 American adults suffer from lower back pain at some point, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “But for those who deal with sciatica, it can be agony,” Dr. Chang says. “Not only are they not able to simply ignore the problem, they shouldn’t. Many compare it to a toothache – it hurts like crazy and needs to be fixed.”

Who is at risk for sciatica?

Anyone can develop sciatica, but it’s more likely in certain people. Risk factors include being older than 45 or being tall; in addition, smokers and those suffering acute mental stress are more prone as well. If your job involves driving, especially when it vibrates the entire body ,or heavy lifting, particularly while bending and twisting, sciatica is also more likely.

Several common back conditions can lead to compression of the sciatic nerves. These include bulging or herniated spinal discs, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal), scar tissue and spinal bone spurs Dr. Chang says. Tingling and numbness can accompany the lower back pain radiating down to the buttocks, thigh, calf and foot in sciatica. “Sitting can make the pain feel worse and just standing or walking can be difficult because of the constant, sharp pain” he explains. “When sciatica is serious, patients can experience weakness or loss of movement in their leg and foot. A doctor should definitely be consulted.”

Treatment options have evolved for Sciatica

Once a doctor determines sciatica is the cause of a patient’s symptoms, which may involve a mix of clinical exams, tests and imaging scans, it’s useful to know how to tackle the problem. In the past, bed rest was often prescribed for sciatica, but this type of passive approach has evolved to include more active treatments, Dr. Chang says.

Conservative, non-surgical sciatica treatments may include applying ice or heat, taking over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers or muscle relaxants, engaging in exercise, physical therapy or undergoing epidural spine injections, according to Dr. Chang.

If all conservative treatments have failed, your doctor may present a surgical option. “Most of the time, non-operative treatments for sciatica ease the terrible pain,” Dr. Chang says. “But if they don’t and the pain doesn’t lessen, surgery can fix the underlying condition prompting sciatica. Surgery is always a last resort, but is considered when significant muscle weakness, loss of bowel or bladder control, or severe pain is involved,” he adds. “Usually, sciatica is temporary and easily treated. But seeing a doctor is crucial.”

For a quick 30 second animated video and more information on Sciatica, visit our Sciatica webpage.