Sciatic nerve symptoms can cause debilitating pain. To appreciate the extent of symptoms that can present because of an injury or trauma, it’s important to understand what the sciatic nerve is.
The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the human body. A bi-lateral nerve that runs from the lower lumbar regions of the spine down the buttocks and back of the legs to the foot, it is about the diameter of an adult size thumb. The sciatic nerve is primarily responsible for movement of the muscles in the legs and feet, communicating this information from the brain through the spinal cord. Injury to the lumbar region of the back – the area between vertebrae L1 and L5 that is below the bottom ribs and above the sacrum – can cause compression or injury to the sciatic nerve.
Sciatic nerve pain symptoms can radiate through the lower back, down the legs and in the feet, or anywhere in between. Its effect can be mildly discomforting to completely debilitating, depending on the level of injury as well as individual pain threshold. Nerve pain such as sciatica is commonly referred to as a pinched nerve, as the compression or “pinching” of the nerve is what causes referred pain, tingling or burning sensation in the body.
What Causes Sciatic Nerve Pain?
Sciatic nerve damage can be caused by either injury or trauma to the spine, or disease such as a tumor or lesion. Sciatica itself is not a diagnosis, but rather describes a set of symptoms that are the result of disease or injury. Most patients under the age of 60 who report sciatica do so as a result of an injury, such as a herniated disc, bone fracture or soft tissue damage. Older patients may experience sciatica that is related to degenerative conditions of the spine.
Symptoms of sciatic nerve pain can vary greatly between individuals. The location of the nerve irritation pays a significant role in how and where the referred pain will be perceived. For example, if the injury or trauma is located in the L3-L4 area of the spine, pain may radiate in the leg and knee. Further down in the L4-L5 region irritation of the sciatic nerve will likely refer pain and tingling in the toes, feet and ankle.
Furthermore, the intensity of pain and correlated motor dysfunction depends on the level of irritation, trauma or injury to the sciatic nerve. A mild compression or pinching of the nerve area may cause tingling or sporadic pain; a greater compression can result in inability to bear weight, walk or respond reflexively.
How Do I Know If I Have Sciatic Nerve Pain?
The symptoms of sciatic nerve pain may develop over a period of time. Patients who have an injury or fall that results in muscle pain in the lower back may be more susceptible to sciatic nerve pain. Swelling of soft tissue, herniated or bulging discs, and misaligned vertebrae can all place pressure on the sciatic nerve. Initial discomfort may be localized to the area of injury, but if the injury does not heal properly or the patient continues to irritate the lumbar area, symptoms of sciatica can develop.
If a patient has a degenerative disorder, a gradual increase in pressure can cause an increase in nerve pain. Most commonly reported pinched sciatic nerve symptoms include lower back pain that increases in intensity over time, a burning sensation in the back or side of the leg, tingling and/or numbness in the feet and toes, and acute pain – a shooting pain – that accompanies standing up or sitting down.
Treating Sciatic Nerve Pain
The good news is, many cases of sciatic nerve pain improve with time with the use of over-the-counter medications and simple physical therapy type exercises that can be performed at home. Many patients will experience a reduction in symptoms as swelling decreases or the injury that caused the compression or pinching improves and heals. NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or naproxen can help with pain and inflammation.
Simple exercise that stretch and strengthen the leg and core muscles, as well as lower back muscles, can improve circulation and aid in recovery. Some types of yoga can be beneficial for reduction of sciatic nerve pain.
In some cases, a patient may require surgery or other invasive medical techniques to alleviate the pain of sciatic nerve damage. These procedures typically address the structural injury – such as a herniated disc or fractured vertebrae – and will oftentimes require physical therapy post-surgery.
Alternative treatments such as acupuncture, chiropractic care, and biofeedback have been found helpful in some patients who report siccative nerve pain.
Any injury to the spine and spinal cord can be serious. If left untreated, even mild injuries can develop complications and symptoms that impede mobility, sensitivity and nerve function. If you are experiencing any type of sporadic or chronic pain that you believe is related to a spinal injury, it is important to seek diagnosis and treatment from a medical professional as soon as possible.