Sciatica is the condition of persistent pain along the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back, down through the buttock and into the lower leg. It is the longest nerve in the body. Pain is a result when the nerve is compressed or injured, mostly due to inflammation, bony enlargement due to arthritis or a displaced (herniated) disk in the lower spine.
Sciatica causes pain that begins in the lower back and spreads through the buttock, leg, calf and, occasionally, the foot. Sometimes, it starts gradually, worsens during the night, and is aggravated by motion. One may experience tingling, numbness or muscle weakness in the affected leg.
Your doctor will evaluate your symptoms along with your medical history, and ask if you have low back pain that has spread to the leg and if you have muscle weakness in your leg or foot. He or she also ask if you've had any injury, fever, problems controlling your bowels or bladder or if you've had cancer of any sort in the past.
A physical examination will be done, paying special attention to your spine and legs. To look for problems in your spinal column and related nerves, your doctor may ask you to perform a series of tests that will check your muscle strength, reflexes and flexibility.
Your doctor may send you for X-rays, a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to check for problems in the spinal vertebrae (backbones) that may be irritating or compressing your sciatic nerve. These tests are most helpful to rule out other causes of symptoms or if surgical options are under consideration.
Sciatica usually can be treated by a brief period of resting and limiting activity, followed by exercises to improve mobility and strengthen the back. If symptoms persist, physical therapy can be helpful. To ease inflammation around the nerve, your doctor may recommend that you alternate using hot and cold compresses.
You also may need to take acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain, or anti-inflammatory drugs, such as naproxen (Aleve, Anaprox), ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil and others) or aspirin for pain and inflammation. Medications used to treat chronic nerve pain may be helpful. In severe cases, an injection of a long-acting anesthetic with a steroid medication can provide relief.
Sciatica usually goes away on its own after a period of rest and limited activities. Most people with sciatica feel better within 6 weeks. Pain that lasts longer than 6 to 12 weeks may require the attention of your physician and if symptoms are severe or prolonged, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in treating back pain.
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