The sciatic nerve is the largest and longest nerve in the body. It runs from the lower back region through the buttock and continues down the back of the leg. The sciatic nerve controls the movement of many muscles in the thigh and leg as well as provides a means of sensory input to the brain. When the sciatic nerve becomes irritated and inflamed, it results in sciatica.
Sciatica is a common cause of low back pain and leg pain. It is usually caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve from a herniated disc. Sciatica occurs most frequently in people 30 to 50 years of age and can be a debilitating disorder in some people. Sciatica normally only affects one side of the lower extremities, and the pain often radiates from the lower back all the way down the back of the thigh and the leg. Depending on where the sciatic nerve is affected, the pain may also radiate to the foot or toes.
Common Causes of Sciatica
There are many causes of sciatica. For this reason, if you experience the symptoms of sciatica, get evaluated by your physician to determine the cause. Some more common causes of sciatica include:
- Herniated Disc
Sciatica can result when one of the vertebral discs of the lower back protrudes outward and compress the nerve roots that form the sciatic nerve. This compression irritates the nerve and causes swelling and pain along the sciatic nerve. Herniated discs are the most common cause of sciatica.
- Lumbar Spinal Stenosis
Lumbar spinal stenosis refers to a narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back region. When the spinal canal becomes narrow in this area, it can compress portions of the nerves that combine to form the sciatic nerve.
- Piriformis Syndrome
The piriformis is a small muscle located deep in the buttock region. It assists in abducting (lifting out) and externally rotating the hip joint. The sciatic nerve runs extremely close to the piriformis muscle, and occasionally runs through it. As a result, when the piriformis muscle becomes tight, it often puts pressure on the sciatic nerve causing irritation and inflammation.
Exercises for Sciatica
Stretching and strengthening exercises that target the muscles of the lower back, abdomen, and thighs can help reduce the symptoms of sciatica. A few beneficial exercises to help decrease pain associated with sciatica include:
Sciatica: a historical perspective on early views of a distinct medical syndrome. Neurosurg Focus. 2004 Jan 15;16(1):E6.