Sciatic Nerve Pain – What is it?

What is Sciatica?

What is Sciatic Nerve Pain , or Sciatica?

Sciatica is a fairly common condition that refers to pain that originates in the sciatic nerve and often causes pain in the low back, buttocks, and down the leg.  This can range from mild to severe, intermittent or constant, chronic or acute.  Acute refers to the initial stages, and chronic refers to the later stages.  The pain follows the path of the sciatic nerve from the low back down the leg, and more commonly affects only one side.  Sciatica is not a condition in itself, but rather a set of symptoms that occur as a result of inflammation or irritation of the sciatic nerve – hence the term “sciatica.”

Sciatic nerve pain is very common and can affect people of all ages, however it is more prevalent as people reach their late thirties or beyond.  It affects both men and women.  When severe the pain can be quite crippling, making it difficult to walk, sit for long periods, go up stairs, or basically carry out a normal day.  It can also be quite a nuisance at times.   In the worst of cases, surgery may be required to correct the structural or mechanical cause of your symptoms.  Please note that surgery for sciatic nerve pain is rare and is usually due to a congenital defect,  structural abnormality, or trauma.  However, despite the possible severity of the symptoms (especially during the early or acute phase of sciatica), sciatic nerve pain is not usually a serious problem and in most cases will resolve with time and/or physiotherapy.

The word “sciatica” is a general term used to describe pain or a set of symptoms associated with irritation or inflammation of the sciatic nerve.   The medical community differentiates between two types of sciatica to help clarify the cause or origin ailment.  There are two different types of sciatica: true sciatica, or false sciatica.  True sciatica is caused by compression of the actual spinal nerve root in the lumbar spine or low back.  The main cause of this is a herniated disc, or a disc “bulge,” in the spine.  False sciatica, by contrast, is caused by compression peripheral to the spinal nerve root.  Please refer to the anatomy section of this website for a better explanation of nerve roots within the spinal cord and how they can be compressed.  Regardless of which type you have, the pain caused by true and false sciatica is identical.

Inflammation or irritation of the sciatic nerve, whether termed true or false sciatica, can be attributed to a number of causes, such as a disc herniation, piriformis syndrome, spinal stenosis, and many others.  It can happen gradually, suddenly, or develop after the original presenting injury or condition.   For example, you may initially have low back pain, and if left untreated you may start to notice some tingling or shooing pains down your leg.  Due to the multiple causes of sciatica, treatment may vary depending on the cause.   Your physiotherapist will help you determine the cause and course of treatment.

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