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Health and Fitness News

A Pain in the Leg

What you need to know about painful, difficult sciatica.

Running from your lower back all the way down the back of each leg is a nerve called the sciatic nerve. This nerve controls muscle movement in the leg and supplies nerve sensations to much of the leg and foot.

When this nerve becomes pinched, pain begins to radiate down the leg. Known as sciatica, this painful problem affects millions each year. Keep reading to learn the causes, symptoms, and treatment for sciatica.

A Pinched Nerve

Sciatica is not a medical condition in itself, but is the result of another problem. It occurs when tissue puts pressure on the sciatic nerve. This compression is most often caused by a bone spur (growth) on one of the vertebrae or a herniated disc in the spinal cord. In rare cases, pressure may develop from tissue damage due to diabetes, infection, or a tumor.

Risk Factors

An estimated 40 percent of people will have sciatica at some point in their lives, but several health and lifestyle factors increase your risk of developing sciatica. Being overweight places stress on your spine and can spinal abnormalities. During your 30s and 40s, you’re at a greater risk for bone spurs and herniated discs, which can cause sciatica. Pregnant women are more likely to feel the pain of sciatica and diabetes can lead to damage of the sciatic nerve. People who are sedentary most of the day or who have a job that requires heavy lifting are also at a greater risk.

Pain and Numbness

Compression of the sciatic nerve leads to inflammation, which leads to pain and possibly numbness. The telltale sign of sciatica is pain that runs from the lower back, down through the buttocks, and along the back of your thigh and calf. Sometimes the pain extends all the way to your feet and toes. Some people only feel pain in the lower back, buttocks, hip, or leg. In severe cases, sciatica can lead to loss of bladder and/or bowel control.

The pain may be a mild discomfort or it can cause sharp, shooting, and burning pain, or feel like an electric shock. Pain caused by sciatica may be constant and debilitating or come and go. Those suffering from sciatica may notice the pain more when they sneeze, cough, or sit for a long time. In addition to pain, it can bring about muscle weakness, numbness, or tingling in the affected muscle. Sciatica typically affects only one side of a person’s body.

See the Doctor?

A mild case of sciatica will usually resolve on its own over the course of several weeks. In the meantime, take over-the-counter pain relievers, alternate between applying heat and ice, and do some light stretches or easy walking to relieve pain.

When these measures don’t seem to help, if you lose control of your bladder or bowel or if the pain is severe, worsens, lasts more than a week, or is the result of a violent injury, see your doctor. Failing to treat severe sciatica can lead to permanent nerve damage.

Your doctor may recommend physical therapy, painkillers, or cognitive behavioral therapy to manage pain. Surgery may be needed when other treatments fail.

Steps Toward Prevention

Afraid sciatica may sneak up on you? Regular exercise is the best way to strengthen your back and core muscles, so hit the gym. With strong muscles, you’re more likely to sit and stand with proper posture and move with proper body mechanics, which all help to prevent sciatica.