Sciatica: When Back Pain Is Actually Nerve Pain

Back pain can be insidious. It affects every little move you make. Most of the time, back pain is due to simple muscle soreness from strenuous activities like physical labor or exercise. After a day of rest and an over-the-counter pain reliever, the pain is usually gone. However, if your back pain lasts for more than a day or two and seems to be spreading or worsening, it may be more than just a strain. It may be sciatica. Here's is what you need to know about this painful back pain symptom.

What Is Sciatica? 

Sciatica is caused when there is abnormal pressure on your sciatic nerve, causing inflammation and pain. This nerve is the biggest nerve in the human body. It begins in your lower back and spreads out to each hip, then down each side of your butt and the back of your thighs, stopping at your knees. While this nerve ends at the knee, other nerves continue down the rest of the leg to the foot. Sciatica is basically like a giant pinched nerve.

What Are The Symptoms Of Sciatica?

Sciatica itself is a symptom rather than a condition. The symptoms can vary. While it frequently manifests as back pain, which can range from mild to severe, it's not always the back where the pain is felt. Because the nerve is so large, sciatica can also cause pain anywhere along it, as well as adjoining nerves. This means you may have pain that travels down one side of your butt and into the back of your thigh. You may only have hip pain. You may also have a pins and needles sensation rather than or in addition to pain or feel as though your leg is numb and weak and fear it will give out. In some cases, you may feel a loss of bladder control. 

What Causes Sciatica?

Most of the time, sciatica is a symptom of a disk that has slipped out of alignment in your spine. With this herniated disk, the nerve is no longer protected by the cushioning the disk provides, and it is compressed or pinched by the pressure. Pregnant women often experience sciatica for the first time as the hormones required for childbirth relax the ligaments. Rarely, injury, infection, or tumors can also cause sciatica.

How Is Sciatica Diagnosed And Treated?

Doctors can often tell simply by checking your reflexes with the hammer as well as how and where your pain presents you have sciatica. While the pain may be excruciating, it is usually treated conservatively as it will go away on its own most of the time.

Use of a heating pad, stretching exercises, and going to the chiropractor are usually sufficient to correct the problem. While the idea of stretching and chiropractic manipulation of your spine may sound like the last thing you want to do while you're in extreme pain with every movement, these activities will actually help correct the problem sooner.

If the pain does not improve after several weeks, your doctor may order an MRI to get a better look at what may be going on. You may have bone spurs that will need to be surgically removed.