Understanding the Sciatic Nerve

The sciatic nerve is the source of a range of problems affecting the lower back, buttocks, legs, and feet. It’s the diameter of a man’s thumb at its widest point, as well as the longest nerve in the body. It lends its name to sciatica, a pain condition that causes symptoms along the nerve’s path. Not all lower back pain originates with the sciatic nerve, though it usually gets the blame. 

The doctors at Atlas Neurosurgery and Spine Center treat problems that cause sciatic nerve issues, as well as any other nerve-related pain issue. Understanding the anatomy and role of the sciatic nerve may help you to better communicate your symptoms, keeping you proactively involved in your health care. Here’s what you need to know. 

It’s not a single nerve

The sciatic nerve comes together on each side of the lower spine. Two nerves from the lumbar region and three from the sacral spine join up and form the single nerve trunks that pass through the pelvis and down the back of the thigh. 

Just above the knee, the sciatic nerve splits into two sections, the common peroneal and tibial nerves. These sections both continue through the lower leg and into the foot. 

Herniated disks are often to blame

One of the most common locations for sciatic nerve irritation is when the lowest disk in the lumbar section interferes with the first nerve root exiting the top of the sacral portion of the spine. A disk becomes herniated when its jelly-like center oozes from a rupture in the tougher outer shell. The herniated portion of the disk contains inflammatory proteins, and these can irritate the nerve, along with the pressure on the nerve itself from the herniated tissue. 

Pain that radiates

While lower back pain is a common symptom of a sciatic nerve problem, you may feel symptoms anywhere along the nerve’s path instead of or along with the back pain. The problem may still originate at the spine, but the sensations project along the nerve’s path. 

These sensations could be painful, but you may also experience numbness or lack of sensation. Tingling is also possible, and you may have areas where the muscles feel weak on the affected side. Sciatic nerve issues are most frequently felt on one of the body. It’s possible to have bilateral sciatica, but it’s typically rare. 

Poor posture aggravates pain

Your symptoms could change or flare during certain postures or changes of position. Sitting for long periods can increase your pain or make you feel “locked up,” so that standing becomes painful. Bending slightly forward, such as when doing the dishes or other standing tasks, can create similar sensations. 

Twisting motions can also cause sudden stabs of pain, usually with movement in only one direction. Lying down on your back may give relief, but rolling to your side can hurt. You may even have stabs of pain when sneezing or coughing. 

Fortunately, most sciatic nerve issues ease with rest and self-care. However, if your pain continues or intensifies, contact Atlas Neurosurgery and Spine Center, by phone or online. Schedule an examination at any of our three Phoenix-area locations in Arizona to get to the bottom of your pain. Your doctor advises you of treatment options and the best course of action in your case. You can get past sciatic nerve pain, so book a consultation now.  

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