Sciatica: What should I do?
Updated: February 2020
The term ‘sciatica’ describes a sharp pain felt along one of the two sciatic nerve pathways. It starts out in your lower back or buttock and radiates down your leg as far as your foot. The pain can become very debilitating, as it is triggered by movement, felt when sitting and can make it difficult to walk. If you have sciatica, it is therefore important to know about the measures that can help to relieve the pain, and to know when you should see a doctor.
A slipped disc: the main cause of sciatica
In the vast majority of cases, sciatic pain is caused by a herniated (‘slipped’) disc. The expression ‘slipped disc’ is used to describe a problem affecting one of the inter-vertebral discs that act as shock absorbers for your spine. If the disc cracks, its soft core can escape and form a hernia (a bulge).
With sciatica, this herniated disc begins to press on one of the sciatic nerve roots. This compression, and the inflammation that occurs around the nerve root together cause pain. The sciatic nerve travels down both legs. It is the widest and longest nerve in the body, as it begins in the spine and extends downward via the buttocks, the backs of the legs and the knees, until it reaches the toes.
What should I do if I have sciatica?
If you have sciatica, it is important to talk to your doctor, who will try to find out what is causing it and then prescribe the appropriate treatment.
Treatment: how to relieve sciatica
The pain may initially be relieved by resting and applying an ice or heat pack to the painful area, as well as taking painkillers or anti-inflammatory drugs. While rest can be helpful for up to 24 to 48 hours, it is important to stay active, which will help you to heal more quickly. A course of physiotherapy may also help to strengthen your back.
There are also some other, drug-free methods of treating pain, such as the OMRON HeatTens range of pain relievers, which combine soothing heat with Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS).
When is surgery necessary?
Most cases of sciatica get better within one or two months. However, if sciatica persists, comes back, or causes paralysis or disability, you may be offered surgery. Most of the time it is a case of fixing the hernia that is pressing on the sciatic nerve. An estimated 5% of sciatica cases are caused by a herniated disc that requires an operation.
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