Sciatica is the name for the, often severe, pain that comes from irritation or pressure on the sciatic nerve which runs down the back of the leg. It can affect either or both legs and can be caused by a number of different things. It is not a condition in itself any more than a pain in your head is called a headache (lots of things can cause headaches).
It is also commonly misdiagnosed.
Your sciatic nerve is much larger than most people think, in that it’s not a little string – it’s about the thickness of your thumb. You can get much more than just pain from irritation of your sciatic nerve. You can get numbness, tingling, pins and needles and even the sensation of trickling water.
One thing is certain. Sciatica is not caused by an absence or shortage of antiinflammatories or painkillers in the body! Just like headaches don’t come from an aspirin shortage. It is very important that the cause of the nerve irritation is addressed and not just masked by tablets.
Sciatica is not always caused by a disc problem (for information on disc problems see here). Sciatica can result from swelling in the tissues around the spine. There are no empty spaces in your body and if a muscle or joint becomes inflamed and swollen it can press on the delicate nerves. In this instance restoring the spine to it’s normal function and flexibility can reduce the swelling and take the pressure off the nerve. Sciatica can also be caused by muscle spasm in the buttock. A particularly tight muscle in your cheek can press on the nerve and produce pain. In a number of people the sciatic nerve passes through the muscle and if that muscle goes into spasm it compresses the nerve.
As chiropractors we are trained to detect and differentiate between these varying causes and know the best way to treat these problems. Sciatica can often take some time to resolve. This is because nerve tissue is highly specialised and, as such, takes a long time to heal. It’s like constantly hitting your thumb with a hammer. It’ll keep hurting as long as you keep doing it (like the pressure on the nerve). However when you stop hitting your thumb (pressing on the nerve) only then can it start to heal and it will still hurt for some while as it recovers. The prognosis is, however, usually very good.