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Sciatica: What You Need to Know

There once was a time when sciatica was viewed as a condition for older patients, something to be suffered when you passed middle-age. But jobs with long hours at a desk, coupled with little to no physical activity, have spawned a new group of 20-something sciatica sufferers.

About 40 percent of adults will be affected by sciatica at some point in their lives. Men and women, regardless of weight, are susceptible to this condition, which most often affects adults between the ages of 30 and 50.

According to Dr. William Lowry Jr., physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist with Center for Orthopaedics, most sciatica sufferers have desk-bound careers. "Sitting reverses the pelvis, which stretches some of the muscles in the lower back, while compressing other muscles.These muscles can strain, which causes them to lock or spasm. This affects the sciatic nerve and causes pain.”

He explains that sciatica is a symptom, not a disease, that results from an irritated sciatic nerve. Although there is no single injury directly related to sciatica, the most common cause is a herniated or slipped disc that leads to pressure on a nerve root. A variety of other factors can be the reason for an injury, such as:

· Piriformis syndrome. The result of the piriformis muscle becoming tight or convulsing. This can put pressure on and irritate the sciatic nerve.

· Spinal stenosis. A condition that is a result of spinal canal narrowing accompanying pressure on the nerves.

· Spondylolisthesis. A slippage of one vertebra, which causes it to be out of line with the one on top of it. This narrows the opening where the nerve passes through.

Dr. Lowry says sciatica is not the same as back pain, but the two often accompany one another. "Unlike back pain, sciatica typically affects only one side. The sciatic nerve starts in the lower spine and runs down the back of each leg, so damage to the nerve can result in some people feeling intense pain in one part of the leg or hip and insensibility in other areas. The pain or numbness may also be felt on the back of the calf or on the sole of the foot.”

He recommends seeing a doctor as soon as any signs start to occur. "Sciatica pain can come in various forms. You may get mild tingling in the one leg, constant pain in one side of the rear, or numbness in a foot. In some cases, the pain is severe enough to make a person unable to move.”

Once your doctor confirms your sciatica symptoms, there are various treatment options available. Sciatica usually resolves on its own with time and rest, so treatment will be geared toward helping you manage the pain. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen, aspirin or muscle relaxants can help.

"Contrary to popular belief, lying in bed for an extended period of time will not help sciatica,” Dr. Lowry says. "In fact, it can make symptoms worse. An active lifestyle can actually help manage sciatica pain.” He suggests asking your doctor for advice on the best type of exercise program for you specific situation, and finding activities you enjoy, which will increase the chances of you sticking with it.

Dr. Lowry says time—in conjunction with these pain management techniques—will usually improve sciatica symptoms. "However, in some cases, cortisone injections may be an additional treatment option if symptoms do not improve.”

Since sciatica can affect just about anyone, Dr. Lowry offers these suggestions for prevention:

· Practice good posture to alleviate pressure on the lower back.

· Avoid sitting for long periods without stretching or walking.

· When lifting heavy objects, stand up with your hips and legs while holding the item close to the chest.

· Do strengthening exercises that support your spine, such as swimming, walking or activities recommended by a physical therapist.

For more information about sciatica, call the Center for Orthopaedics at (337) 721-7236 or visit

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