What Exactly Is Sciatica and How Does it Happen?

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Most people think of back problems like sciatica as something to worry about when they’re close to retiring, but sciatica usually begins decades earlier. So what is sciatica and how does it develop? Here’s all the information you need to know.

Most people are diagnosed with sciatica in their 30s. For some, the problem heals and their pain improves. For others, it’s the start of a chronic pain condition.

Whether your sciatica just started or you’ve been trying to find pain relief for years, the team at Alliance Spine Associates, LLC can help.

As specialists in spine problems and pain management, they provide advanced treatments that effectively ease sciatica pain even after other medical therapies have failed.

Sciatica explained

Sciatica refers to the unique symptoms you experience when you have a pinched sciatic nerve. You have two sciatic nerves: one for each side of your body. The nerves leave your lower spine, run through your left and right buttocks and travel down both legs to your feet.

You develop sciatica when a condition in your spine compresses the nerve. Any pinched nerve may or may not cause symptoms along the nerve.

You can tell when you have sciatica because it always causes pain that travels through the entire nerve, going from your back and down one leg.

Sciatica symptoms

Sciatica’s hallmark symptom is sharp pain that suddenly shoots down one leg. The severity of your pain may vary, but most people describe it as excruciating or like an electric-shock pulsing through their leg.

You may also have lower back pain at the source of the nerve compression. And you may feel sensations other than pain. For example, you may have tingling or burning sensations going through your leg. In severe cases, the pinched nerve causes leg numbness or weakness.

Sciatica’s top cause

Herniated discs cause 90% of all cases of sciatica. You’re mostly likely to develop a herniated disc between ages 30-50, helping to explain why sciatica strikes at an earlier age than you might expect.

The discs tucked between each vertebra are essential for a healthy spine and pain-free movement. They provide a cushion between the bones and absorb the force that goes through your spine with every activity and movement.

Wear-and-tear and repetitive movements cause weak spots in the disc’s strong outer cover. Then pressure from the vertebrae pushes the disc’s inner gel-like substance through the weak area, creating a bulge that protrudes between the vertebrae and pinches the nerve.

If the weak area tears, the inner gel spills out, further irritating the nerve and causing inflammation. The loss of the inner gel also makes the disc collapse, another cause of sciatica.

Other reasons for sciatica

If you don’t have a herniated disc, many other problems can lead to sciatica, including:

Traumatic injury

Any injury that affects the vertebrae or the muscles and ligaments supporting your lower back may cause pinched nerves.

Degenerative disc disease

Spinal discs naturally dehydrate over the years, eventually allowing the discs to collapse.

Thickened ligaments

Thickened ligaments are another degenerative change that can push against the sciatic nerves.

Osteoarthritis and bone spurs

As the joints between vertebrae develop osteoarthritis, your body tries to compensate by growing extra bone. These bone spurs often pinch spinal nerves.

Spondylolisthesis (slipped vertebra)

Vertebrae in your lower back may slip out of position when the discs stop functioning. Though not as common in adults, you could also have a fracture in the vertebra.

Spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis refers to narrowing in the spinal canal. The canal is formed by the vertebral bones, so it doesn’t actually narrow unless you suffer a severe accident. Instead, the narrowing occurs when herniated or degenerated discs, bone spurs, and thickened ligaments jut into the canal. 

No matter what causes your sciatica, the experienced team at Alliance Spine Associates, LLC, can help. They offer comprehensive care, from conservative therapies to advanced techniques that deal with the root cause of your pain. Call the office or request an appointment online today.