Sciatica – what it is and what it isn’t

There is a common misconception that any pain in the leg is ‘sciatica’, however, true sciatica is a term that describes the symptoms caused by the sciatic nerve being pinched or compressed, not pain resulting from other issues such as referred joint, disc or muscular pain.

The sciatic nerve runs from the lower back, through the buttocks and down the back of the thigh to the lower leg and foot, meaning that the symptoms of sciatica – typically pain, pins and needles and/or numbness – can occur anywhere along this course.

Pinched nerve causing sciaticaWhat causes sciatica?

Sciatica is commonly caused by a bulging disc in the lower back and/or tight muscles in the buttock region, but can also be the result of other conditions such as spinal degeneration and traumatic injuries.

In many cases however, leg pain is not due to the sciatic nerve being pinched and is therefore not technically sciatica. Conditions such as muscle strains, trigger points and sacroiliac joint dysfunction can cause very similar pain to that felt in true sciatica, but usually don’t cause pins and needles or numbness. Because of this, it is important that you have your symptoms properly assessed so the correct diagnosis is made and the optimal treatment program can be created.

To assess your pain, your physiotherapist will ask you a series of questions relating to your symptoms, watch you move and use hands on techniques to feel for joint and muscle mobility. Once it has been established that the symptoms are in fact due to the sciatic nerve being pinched, treatment will involve trying to relieve this pressure. Physiotherapists can use techniques such as joint mobilisations to open up joints that are causing pressure on the nerve and massage to loosen tight muscles that are pressing on the nerve.

What can you do?

If you think you are experiencing sciatic pain, there are a few simple things you can do to try to relieve the pain and discomfort associated with the condition until you can see a physiotherapist.

  1. Lie down to alleviate the pressure of gravity on the nerve
  2. Change positions frequently to avoid joints and muscles stiffening up
  3. Use a heat pack on your lower back and/or buttocks to minimise the muscle spasm

Although the symptoms of sciatica are extremely unpleasant in the early stages, with proper management they can be settled and prevented from returning. The experienced physiotherapists at North West Physiotherapy will work with you to help get you back on your feet as quickly as possible and give you exercises and strategies to ensure that your sciatica does not return. Contact us on 3353 4111 to book an appointment and get yourself on the road to recovery.