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If Sciatica Is Not A Diagnosis, What Is Sciatica?

If Sciatica Is Not A Diagnosis, What Is Sciatica?
If Sciatica Is Not A Diagnosis, What Is Sciatica?

What Is Sciatica?

The sciatic nerve is the longest and thickest nerve in your body and runs from your lower spine through your buttocks all the way down the back of each leg dividing into branches at the knee ending in your foot. Statistics suggest up to 40% of people will get sciatica or sciatica symptoms at some point in their life. So, what is sciatica? Anything putting pressure or irritating this nerve can cause pain to shoot down the leg which people refer to as sciatica. The nature of the pain can vary being anything from a dull ache to a sharp or burning sensation causing extreme discomfort. Frequently accompanied with this pain people may experience numbness and tingling in specific areas of the leg and foot or weakness in particular muscles. When people comment they have sciatica, what they are referring to is the experience of pain, numbness, tingling, weakness… caused by the compression or irritation of this nerve and the symptoms are felt along this sciatic nerve pathway.

Common Causes Of Sciatica

Sciatica is not a diagnosis in itself but a potential set of signs and symptoms indicating the compression or irritation to the sciatic nerve. This irritation or compression can come from a number of different origins. Meaning being told you have sciatica does not explain the cause of the pain, the origin of the nerve irritation or compression it just highlights that the irritation is present. Technically sciatica simply refers to the pain caused by irritation or compression of one or more of the nerves exiting the lower spine making up the sciatic nerve and there are a number of conditions which are capable of doing this.

Some of the common causes of sciatica are:

  • Bulging or Herniated Disc: A bulging or herniated disc may compress or press on nearby structures including the exiting nerve roots coming from the spinal cord that eventually join up to form the sciatic nerve.
  • Spinal Stenosis: In lumbar spinal stenosis, the spinal nerve roots in the lower back are compressed, (or choked) which can produce symptoms of sciatica.
  • Spondylolisthesis: Isthmic spondylolisthesis can cause sciatica as one vertebral body slips forward over another and pinches the nerve root.
  • SIJ Dysfunction: Sciatica is generally defined as ‘pain in the lower back and hip radiating in the distribution of the sciatic nerve’ SIJ dysfunction can also give pain in a similar pattern to sciatica.
  • Piriformis Syndrome: The piriformis muscle begins inside the pelvis and the sciatic nerve runs under (and sometimes through) this piriformis muscle on its way out of the pelvis. As a result of this relationship between piriformis and the sciatic nerve the piriformis muscle can squeeze and irritate the sciatic nerve in this area, leading to the symptoms of sciatica.

Disclaimer: Sydney Physio Clinic does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products mentioned. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance on What Is Sciatica? should consult his or her orthopaedic surgeon, general practitioner or physiotherapist.

Hayden Latimer is the founder of and principle physiotherapist at Sydney Physio Clinic. Since graduating from Otago University, Dunedin, New Zealand he’s gained wide experience practicing across the globe for over 15 years and is now extremely knowledgeable in helping people reduce discomfort and restore function and mobility.