Could Your Low Back Pain Be Sciatica?

Posted on May 16, 2024 by Henry Ford Health Staff

Sciatica is a very common complaint. Up to 40% of adults experience this type of low back pain at some point in their lives.

“It’s one of the more common reasons people see their doctors,” says Kevin Taliaferro, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Henry Ford Health. “That’s because all humans—by virtue of standing upright—are at risk of sciatica.”

Learning what causes sciatica and how you can treat it can help you live with less back pain.

What Is Sciatica?

The term “sciatica” is used to describe a broad array of symptoms all related to the low back and the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body. It’s located in the low back, and extends down the back of each leg.

When something irritates the sciatic nerve, the resulting pain is called sciatica. “But low back pain not related to the nerve is also sometimes called sciatica,” says Dr. Taliaferro. “There’s a band of muscles across the low back that attaches to four different joints in the hips and spine . Pain can result from any of those and be felt in the low back, buttocks or legs."

Most sciatic pain happens when a herniated or bulging disc in the spine pushes on the sciatic nerve. Sciatic nerve pain can also result from:

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Common Symptoms Of Sciatica

Common symptoms of sciatica may include:

  • Low back pain
  • Pain that extends from your low back into your buttocks
  • Shooting pain down the back of your leg
  • Weakness, numbness or tingling in your leg

In severe cases, a pinched sciatic nerve can lead to loss of function in your legs or even loss of bladder or bowel control.

How To Treat Sciatica

While sciatica pain can be debilitating, it’s rarely a permanent condition. “Ninety percent of people get better in 6 weeks to 2 months,” says Dr. Taliaferro. “When deciding how to treat sciatica, we always start with the most conservative treatments.”

Non-surgical treatments for sciatica may include:

  • Ice or heat applied to the sore muscles
  • Movement (keeping your body moving as well as doing gentle stretching)
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (such as ibuprofen)
  • Physical therapy to improve motion around the nerve and strengthen the core muscles that protect the back
  • Rest from activities that cause or worsen your pain

If your back pain doesn’t resolve after a few weeks, your provider may recommend steroid injections to reduce inflammation around the nerve. For severe pain, your doctor can inject a nerve-blocking medication directly into the root of the sciatic nerve.

In rare cases, surgery may be the right treatment for sciatic pain. “If the pain is the result of degeneration of discs leading to instability in the spine, we may recommend surgery,” says Dr. Taliaferro. “We can remove a disc that’s pushing on the roots that form the sciatic nerve or insert rods or screws to improve stability in the spine.”

When To See A Doctor for Sciatica

If you have sudden shooting pain that radiates from your low back down your legs, you should see your doctor. They can accurately diagnose what’s causing your pain and advise you on the best treatment. Since targeted stretching and strengthening exercises are important for both treating and preventing sciatica, your doctor can also refer you to a physical therapist.

“Once you’ve experienced sciatica, you may get it again,” says Dr. Taliaferro. “But you’ll also know the tools you need to help yourself get better.” However, if your symptoms are different, more extreme or involve weakness, numbness or loss of function in your legs, you should see a back specialist for treatment.

Reviewed by Dr. Kevin Taliaferro is an orthopedic surgeon who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital. Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital Clinics and Henry Ford Medical Center - Taylor.

Categories : MoveWell

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