Everything to Know About the Sciatic Nerve and Sciatica
Many people have experienced a shooting, stabbing, or dull sensation that starts in their lower back and radiates down one of their legs. This generally occurs because something has aggravated the sciatic nerve, causing discomfort. Sometimes, the symptoms can go away on their own, and there may also be times when you need additional treatment for sciatica discomfort relief.
To find the best treatment for you, it’s important to understand sciatica, what causes it, and whether you’re at a greater risk of developing it.
What is the Sciatic Nerve?
The sciatic nerve is the largest and longest nerve in the human body. It begins from a network of nerves in the lower back known as the sacral plexus. From there, it exits through a nerve passageway in the pelvic area and runs down the back of each leg. The sciatic nerve also branches off to several locations, including the tibial nerve and the hip joint.
The sciatic nerve consists of five nerve roots (L4, L5, S1, S2, and S3) that group together deep in the buttock, combining to form one single, thick nerve.
Functions of the Sciatic Nerve
The sciatic nerve has two main functions that enable motor and sensory functions in the lower body. It’s responsible for helping you walk, stand, and run while providing sensation to several areas over the skin. This can lead to discomfort when the nerve is affected.
Common areas affected by the sensory functions of the sciatic nerve are the thigh, lower leg, feet, and toes. As a mixed nerve, it also handles motor functions, including:
- Foot inversion and exertion
- Foot dorsiflexion and plantarflexion
- Toe flexion and extension
- Hip adduction
- Knee flexion
What is Sciatica?
Whenever the sciatic nerve becomes irritated, it can lead to uncomfortable symptoms known as sciatica. It’s a very common condition, with over 3 million U.S. cases each year. Sciatica causes significant irritation along the nerve path and generally affects one side of the body. During a flare-up, people generally find it more challenging to perform certain movements.
People may experience the following if they’re dealing with sciatica:
- Pins and needles sensation
- Weak muscles
- Altered reflexes
Common Conditions and Disorders that Affect the Sciatic Nerve
Anything that compresses or irritates the sciatic nerve can lead to uncomfortable symptoms. Lower back or hip conditions are one of the primary causes of sciatica. The affected nerve root generally determines where you experience discomfort. For example:
- The L4 section usually results in radiating discomfort throughout the thigh
- The L5 section generally results in radiating discomfort in the foot
- The S1 section typically results in radiating discomfort down the leg
Below are some of the common conditions and disorders that can cause sciatica:
Most cases of sciatica are caused by a lumbar herniated disc, a very common spinal condition. Discs are squishy paddings between the vertebra that serve as shock absorbers. They also support the upper body and help you move in different directions. A disc begins to herniate due to wear and tear or a sudden injury, causing the jelly-like center to push against the outer ring.
If you develop a lumbar herniated disc, it could start putting extra pressure on the sciatic nerve, triggering discomfort.
Degenerative Disc Disease
Degenerative disc disease occurs due to the natural wearing down of the vertebral discs as we age. If they become too thin, the space between each vertebra can become compressed and put excess pressure on the sciatic nerve. Fluid from the disc can also leak out and irritate the sciatic nerve if the outer covering is completely worn down.
Medical professionals classify degenerative disc disease in four stages:
- Dysfunction is the first stage that results in mild backaches
- Dehydration is the second stage that causes a noticeable spinal deformity
- Stabilization is the third stage that can lead to muscle aches, stiffness, and difficulty moving
- Collapsing is the fourth and final stage, resulting in severe aches and collapsed spinal discs
This condition refers to the narrowing of the area where the spinal cord and sciatic nerve roots travel through. A person with spinal stenosis may experience backaches due to the pressure put on the spinal cord and its surrounding nerves, including the sciatic nerve. It often occurs due to age-related wear and tear of the spine.
Although many people with spinal stenosis experience tingling, numbness, or muscle weakness, others may not have any symptoms at all. Severe cases may require surgery.
Inflammation in the body can occur from many factors, primarily injuries. When the nerve roots in your lower back become inflamed, they can press against the sciatic nerve and cause symptoms. The following events can cause inflammation around the nerves and muscles of the lumbar spine:
- Dislocated hip
- Transverse myelitis
Spondylolisthesis is a very common spinal disorder that occurs when one vertebra slips forward onto the one beneath it. Your vertebrae keep you stabilized because they’re designed to be stacked one over the other. If one slips onto the other, it can press against the sciatic nerve and cause discomfort.
Spondylolisthesis and spondylolysis can often get mixed up. Although both can cause discomfort in the back, they are two different conditions. The latter is a spine defect that occurs from stress fractures or a crack in the spine bones. Spondylolisthesis can also happen because of spondylolysis.
The piriformis muscle is located in the glute region and can sometimes become tight or spasm. When this happens, it’s known as piriformis syndrome. Since the sciatic nerve is nearby, those with this disorder may also experience discomfort in the lower back and down the legs. Symptoms may worsen in these scenarios:
- Sitting for long periods
- Climbing stairs
- Running or walking
Sometimes referred to as osteophytes, bone spurs are hard lumps that grow on a bone. They often occur on the joints where two bones meet each other but can also form on the spine. Bone spurs can extend far enough to pinch the sciatic nerve and cause symptoms.
One of the leading causes of bone spurs is damage from osteoarthritis. Your body attempts to repair the loss by creating these hard lumps near the damaged area. Most people may not know they have osteophytes until it’s confirmed through an x-ray.
Who is Most at Risk for Sciatica?
Although sciatica is a very common condition, some people are at a greater risk of developing it than others. You are more likely to deal with sciatica if you fall under any of the following categories:
Middle-aged people are more likely to develop sciatica than younger individuals. This is because the spine naturally wears down as you age, causing the vertebra to compress and aggravate the sciatic nerve. The risk increases even more if you’re taller, male, or overweight.
Unfortunately, you can’t stop the natural degeneration process as you age. However, remaining healthy, limber, and active can certainly slow it down!
Many pregnant women may experience lower backaches and sciatica due to their growing bellies. As the baby grows and your uterus expands, it can put pressure on the sciatic nerve. Even though it can occur at any stage, it’s much more common during the third trimester.
To ease pregnancy-related sciatica, you can use a heating pad to relax tight muscles or ask your doctor about medication that won’t harm the baby. It’s also important to keep moving by doing some gentle stretches and other low-impact activities.
Those Who Frequently Perform Manual Labor
You could develop disc herniation if you regularly lift heavy loads or twist your spine, especially if you don’t use proper form. As you already know, herniated discs can begin to compress the sciatic nerve and lead to uncomfortable symptoms. Several professions can put you at a greater risk of developing sciatica, including:
- Physical therapists
- Movers and delivery people
- Assembly line workers
The best way to reduce job-related sciatica is to be mindful of your posture and take care of your body with some exercise and stretching.
Those with a Sedentary Lifestyle
Sitting down for long periods can put you at a greater risk of sciatic nerve discomfort because it compresses your spine and discs. Those who work in professions that require them to sit a lot, such as office workers and truck drivers, are likely to deal with these symptoms. It’s especially harmful if you don’t make the time to exercise and stretch or if you have items in your back pocket while you’re sitting.
If you are an endurance athlete, you are more likely to overuse certain muscles near the sciatic nerve. This will lead to overuse injuries that can cause inflammation and sciatica symptoms. The best way to limit your chances of developing sciatica as an endurance athlete is to always warm up before your sport and cool down right after.
Some common endurance sports include:
Those Who are Overweight or Obese
Excess weight can put pressure on your spine and lead to uncomfortable sciatica symptoms. Backaches are generally a common concern for overweight people, but the extra pounds can also impact the healing of your muscles, spine, and joints. Once you start losing weight, even just a little bit, your body begins to reduce some of the inflammation and stress on your sciatic nerve.
Patients with Diabetes
Diabetes describes the condition when your body cannot regulate the amount of glucose in your blood. It has its own symptoms that are similar to sciatica. When your blood sugar is high for long periods, it can damage the nerve fibers throughout your body. Nerve damage that often occurs due to diabetes can put you at a greater risk of developing sciatica.
The best way to reduce sciatica if you also have diabetes is to work on maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.
Diagnosing and Treating Sciatica
Imaging can be used to determine the cause of your sciatica, making it easier to develop a proper treatment plan. Doctors can use several methods of imaging, such as x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or computed tomography (CT) scans.
Once you receive a diagnosis, the next step is to work on getting rid of that discomfort. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, there are many options for finding the relief you need. Some of these include:
- Heat and cold therapy
- Practitioner-assisted stretching
- Modifying activities that trigger sciatica
- Prescription or over-the-counter medications
- Lifestyle changes (weight loss, increasing core strength, changing sleeping positions, etc.)
When Surgery is Necessary
Fortunately, surgery is rarely needed to heal sciatica. Doctors would only consider it if you don’t respond well to conservative treatment or if other serious symptoms occur, such as severe leg weakness and bladder or bowel dysfunction.
Generally, this happens due to a rare disorder known as cauda equina syndrome, which causes dysfunction in several lumbar and sacral nerve roots.
If that’s the case, quick treatment may be necessary to prevent permanent damage or possible paralysis of the legs. Surgery can be effective for the right patient, and it’s been shown to be successful for treating sciatica when there’s real nerve compression.
Can Professional Stretching Help Relieve Sciatica?
The right stretches can certainly help relieve sciatica symptoms! The best way to do this is by performing exercises that externally rotate the hip, which can provide some relief. The worst thing you can do is perform stretches that put more stress on the sciatic nerve, such as forward bends, leg circles, or double leg lifts.
If stiff muscles prevent you from moving through your full range of motion, a professional stretch practitioner can help you. They’re trained in using the powerful principles of neuromuscular behavior to gradually increase your range of motion and relieve tightness. Ask your stretch practitioner to help you with stretches that loosen the muscles around the sciatic nerve, including the:
- Lower back
Are You Looking for Sciatica Discomfort Relief?
If you’re looking for relief from sciatica discomfort, the professionals at Stretch Zone are ready to help! Not only does our proven method provide lasting results, but we can also tell you some of the best and worst exercises you can do for relief. Find a Stretch Zone near you and sign up for your first free 30-minute session today.
We look forward to helping you live a life with less sciatic discomfort!