What Causes Sciatica?
Common causes of sciatica
Sciatica is a common condition and many people will experience sciatic pain at some point in their life. Sciatica is nerve pain or nerve damage from an injury or irritation to the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the biggest nerve in the body. It goes from your lower back, through the hips and buttock, and down the back of the thigh to the foot.
The most common causes of sciatica are:
- Slipped disc – also called a herniated or ruptured disc. This is when the soft cushion of tissue between the bones in your spine pushes out. Slipped discs can be a result of wear and tear over time or from an acute back injury and can reduce space around your spinal cord
- Spinal stenosis – an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal that your nerves pass through
- Spondylolisthesis – one of the bones in your spine slips out of line with the one above it. It is often caused by osteoarthritis
- Back injury from falls, car accidents or sports injuries
- Piriformis syndrome – this is a rare neuromuscular disorder where your piriformis muscle tightens, putting pressure on your spinal nerves which causes sciatic nerve pain
Sciatica causes inflammation, pain and sometimes numbness in the leg. It usually affects one leg at a time. The symptoms of sciatica can vary from a mild ache to a burning sensation or severe pain. Moving, sneezing or coughing can make the symptoms worse.
Common symptoms of sciatica affecting the bottom, leg and foot include:
- Moderate to severe stabbing, burning or shooting pain
- Tingling sensation similar to pins and needles
- Muscle weakness
If you have more serious symptoms, contact your GP immediately. Serious symptoms include:
- Sciatica on both sides
- Severe weakness or numbness in both legs
- Numbness around your genitals or bottom
- Loss of bowel or bladder function
Some symptoms of sciatica can highlight a serious, underlying medical condition. These include cauda equina syndrome or spinal tumours.
Sciatica Risk Factors
Common risk factors for sciatica
A risk factor is something that can increase your chances of getting sciatica.
These risk factors include:
- Injury to your spine or lower back
- Being overweight
- Having an active job
- Damage to your bones, which often happens as you age
Ways to relieve sciatica
Sciatica often improves after 4-6 weeks but it can last longer. It affects every person differently. Here are some self-care suggestions on how to relieve sciatica pain and speed up your recovery:
- Continue with your day-to-day activities where possible
- Avoid being still for long periods
- Do regular stretching exercises for sciatica to improve flexibility
- Take part in gentle, regular exercise as it’s important to keep moving
- Discuss using over-the-counter painkillers with your pharmacist
- Put a small cushion between your knees if you’re sleeping on your side. If you’re lying on your back, put several pillows underneath your knees
You can also use hot or cold packs to help with sciatica pain. Remember that cold packs or ice packs should only be used on short term injuries, like a strain or a sprain. Heat packs can be applied if you have a long-standing injury.
A physical therapist can recommend specific exercises for how to help sciatica pain by reducing the pressure on the nerve. Physiotherapists can also massage the bones and joints in painful areas to reduce inflammation.
Chronic pain is difficult to deal with, so it’s understandable if you feel sad or depressed. It’s important to get help for your mental wellbeing as a negative outlook can impact the pain you feel in your body. A positive attitude will help bring down the intensity of pain you feel.
If your pain doesn’t improve, your GP will refer you to a healthcare professional to discuss other treatment options. You may need an X-ray or CT scan to identify the cause of pain. Other treatments may involve a muscle relaxant, steroid injections or spinal decompression surgery. If these are unsuccessful or unsuitable for you, then you may be eligible for medical cannabis from a doctor that is a specialist prescriber.
Medications used for sciatica
You can take over the counter pain killers to manage sciatica. Pain relief won’t cure sciatica in the long term, but it can make it easier for you to do your daily activities.
Pain relief can be bought from any pharmacy. These include:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen tablets or gel, or diclofenac gel (Voltarol)
- Medicated or non-medicated heat pads or heat creams
- Co-codamol (codeine and paracetamol) for short term relief
You can use paracetamol for pain relief but it’s unlikely to help treat sciatica pain on its own.
Sciatica and medicinal cannabis
Research into the effect of medicinal cannabis on pain associated with sciatica is limited. However, following the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes in 2018, there has been a rise in people looking towards medical cannabis. When first-line therapies have not proved effective at reducing symptoms, medical cannabis may be considered an option for sciatica. For further information and to find out more about medical cannabis, click here to discover more about our multi-award-winning Sapphire Access Scheme. Alternatively, complete an eligibility assessment now. Once complete, one of our clinicians will review your application and advise whether you are eligible for progression to an appointment.