Causes and Symptoms of Sciatica

A man suffering sciatica symptoms
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Sciatica Causes and Symptoms

If you’re experiencing a shooting pain that starts in your lumbar (lower) spine and extends into the hips and legs, you may have sciatic nerve pain, also known as sciatica. Sciatic pain is a different sensation from regular lower back pain and can cause alarm with first-time sufferers. 

But rest easy. Sciatica is highly treatable, and you’re not alone — 

Sciatica affects a significant portion of the population, with nearly 40% of people developing the symptoms at some point in their lifetime. The likelihood of developing sciatica increases substantially with age. Ff you already suffer from back pain to begin with, the chances also go up.

What is sciatica?

The term sciatica refers to pain in the sciatic nerve, the longest and widest nerve in the human body. It starts at the lower back and travels through the hips and down the legs. The nerve roots of the sciatic nerve begin at the lower spin and extend all the way down to the toes. 

Sciatica or sciatic nerve pain typically only affects one side of the body. Sciatica is often the result of a herniated disk that pinches the nerve, causing inflammation, pain, and sometimes numbness in the leg. In fact, sciatica itself is not classified as a condition, but merely a symptom of the underlying cause.

Sciatica vs back pain

Sciatic pain is an entirely different animal than acute or even chronic back pain. It is a highly distinct, painful sensation that radiates and travels downward anywhere along the sciatic nerve. The shooting sensation and large areas it affects can make things uncomfortable to excruciating, depending on the underlying cause. 

In most cases, sciatica can be taken care of without surgery. Symptoms usually subside within a few weeks. A small percentage of people who experience severe sciatica accompanied by changes in the bowels and bladder or severe leg weakness may require surgery. But even in these more severe cases there is a chance it could be resolved non-invasively.

Symptoms of sciatica

Sciatica symptoms can range from mild annoyances to episodes of intense pain that make it difficult to walk. The major symptoms of sciatica include:

  • Shooting pain that starts in lower back and travels downward
  • Lower back pain
  • Pain in buttock, groin, foot, calf
  • Pain, numbness or weakness of the leg(s)
  • Hip pain
  • Tingling in the feet and toes

Sciatic nerve pain can be felt anywhere and everywhere along the nerve itself. Most report pain in the legs, usually just on one side. The major clue that differentiates sciatica from other pain is the unmistakable shooting sensation caused by inflammatory response.

Woman experiencing sciatica nerve pain symptoms

Are you at risk?

Some people are more at risk of developing sciatica than others. The following are risk factors that make certain individuals more susceptible to sciatica and sciatic nerve pain flare ups:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Chronic back pain
  • Pregnancy 
  • Age (45+)

If you fit into one or more of these categories, you may be more at risk of developing sciatica. 

Sciatica causes 

Technically speaking, sciatica is not a condition at all, but rather a symptom of an issue with the sciatic nerve itself. 90% of sciatica is caused by a displaced or herniated disk in the lower spine, but there are some other issues that might be at the root of the problem.

What causes sciatica?

  • Herniated, slipped, or ruptured disc- A herniated disc that pinches the sciatic nerve is by far and away the most common cause of sciatica. An injury or trauma can cause a herniated disc. More often, a sedentary lifestyle or working for long periods of time while sitting is the culprit. 
  • Osteoarthritis- Osteoarthritis can cause injury to the sciatic nerve fibers at the base of the spine.
  • Piriformis syndrome- A more uncommon cause, piriformis syndrome is an abnormal condition of the piriformis muscle that triggers sciatica.
  • Lumbar spinal stenosisNarrowing of the spinal canal that results in pinching of the sciatic nerve. 
  • Pregnancy- Weight gain caused by pregnancy and the pressure put on the lumbar spine can pinch the sciatic nerve, causing sciatica.
  • Degenerative disc disease

What causes sciatica foot pain?

When the sciatic nerve gets pinched due to one of the above conditions, the compression causes inflammation and pain anywhere from the lower spine all the way to the feet. It’s not uncommon for people to also experience sciatic pain in the hips, groin, and legs, but usually the pain is concentrated on one side of the body. 

What causes sciatica buttock pain?

The pinched sciatic nerve, whether from a herniated disc or other condition, is the underlying cause of sciatica buttock pain. Buttock pain is one of the most reported symptoms associated with sciatica for a couple reasons. First, the majority of people that feel sciatic nerve pain strongly in the buttocks either have a sedentary lifestyle or work at a desk for long hours during the day. This additional pressure on the lower discs from sitting makes these individuals (millions of people) more likely to have sciatica pain concentrated in the buttocks.

Second, sciatica buttock pain is very common in obese people who may or may not also sit for long periods of the day. Maintaining a healthy weight is a great way to avoid sciatica. Many who lose the weight never have a problem with sciatica again.

What causes sciatica in legs?

The sciatic nerve splits at the lumbar spine and travels all the way down through the legs and into the feet. Shooting pain in the leg(s) is a very common symptom of sciatica. However, the pain is usually only felt in one leg. Numbness in one or both legs is symptomatic of more severe sciatica and should be immediately brought to the attention of a healthcare professional.

What causes sciatica to flare up?

Often, sciatica flare ups can be felt shortly after injury. But sometimes, flare ups can be triggered mysteriously. Sciatic nerve pain ranges from sudden, acute episodes to more chronic pain depending on the severity of the compression at the site of the pinched nerve. Often, if not caused by an acute injury, a flare up may be caused by the cumulative effects of chronic misalignment or by disc degeneration, which itself can have several causes. These range from simple aging to issues with posture, sports-based or other acute injuries, or malabsorption of nutrients.

Sciatica treatment

Sciatica usually resolves itself in a few weeks and is rarely a serious issue requiring surgery. For minor cases, you can do many things at home to ease your symptoms:

You can learn more in this post about the evidence for when and how chiropractic is effective for sciatica.

What to do for sciatic nerve pain

If you work at a desk for many hours during the day, adjusting your posture or standing up to stretch every 20 minutes or so can be a huge help to alleviate your symptoms. Pregnant women especially will also benefit from regular stretching and switching positions while sleeping and sitting.

OTC pain relievers like aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen can provide temporary relief. Be sure not to exceed the recommended dosage per day. When in doubt, ask your doctor which pain reliever is right for you. 

Gentle stretching of the lower back and legs, alternating between a heating pad and ice pack, and low-impact exercise like walking, swimming, and yoga are also great ways to relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve. 

And finally, nutrition and chiropractic care are more comprehensive and holistic ways to treat sciatica. These will not only provide pain relief, but improve your overall health. Nutrition-based solutions include switching to an anti-inflammatory diet and incorporating effective supplements that target joint inflammation, like glucosamine and calcium. 

Man getting chiropractic care for sciatica

Want to be 100% sure of what’s causing your sciatic nerve pain? Visiting the chiropractor can first off, provide you with answers to the cause of your sciatica. A chiropractor can then form the appropriate treatment and programs to get you on track, including adjustments, stretching, referrals, and more. 

Remember that even though sciatica starts out as inflammation, if left untreated or unresolved for a long period of time, it can result in nerve damage. If left completely untreated, symptoms could become permanent. If your sciatic nerve pain is severe or lasts more than a couple weeks, it’s imperative to pay a visit to the doctor or chiropractor.

How can a chiropractor help sciatica?

One of the benefits of chiropractic care for sciatica is that you don’t need a referral to get in the door. Chiropractors are experts in treating the spine and nervous system and will be able to help pinpoint the cause of your symptoms.

Plus, chiropractic care for sciatica is usually covered by insurance. A chiropractor can provide you with highly effective treatments and plans that minimize or eradicate your sciatic nerve pain. By identifying the cause of your sciatica and level of concern, a chiropractor can also point you in the right direction for advanced care such as prescriptions, a CT scan, and referrals for physical therapy or acupuncture.

Next Steps

Now that you’re more familiar with what causes sciatica and the common symptoms, you can figure out the next steps to help treat your sciatic nerve pain. Treatments can range from at-home remedies and simply keeping the area comfortable to more advanced plans recommended by a chiropractic health professional. In any case, if you think you have sciatica, call your chiropractor as soon as possible to start a treatment plan that will put you on the path to feeling better.

Don’t have a chiropractor? We’d love to help! If you’re in the Austin area, schedule a free consultation.

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