The signs of sciatica are nearly impossible to miss. People who’ve never heard of the condition may not have a name for it but, based on a quick online search like “pain shooting down the back of leg” is all it takes to become familiar with it. Sciatica is a relatively common condition and is one that can interfere with daily activities if not addressed properly. When we meet people seeking care for sciatica pain, one of the most pressing questions they have is “why did I get this?” Getting an exact answer can sometimes be difficult. What we can do is explore the origin of the shooting pain. Sciatica is often thought of as a leg problem or nerve problem. While there is a little relevance to each thought, what your spinal specialist knows is that sciatica is a back problem.
Sciatica is a Symptom, Not a Condition
To get proper care for sciatica pain, it is necessary to understand where the pain is coming from, the lumbar spine. The nerve roots that exit the spinal column segment of the low back travel through the pelvic, under the buttocks muscles, and down the legs. Just like any other area of the spine, the lumbar spine can develop conditions that press on one or more of the nerve roots trying to exit the area. Some of the most common conditions that we see contributing to sciatica include:
- Herniated disc. Each level of the spinal column has bony joints and soft discs made of cartilage. The discs absorb “shock” from our daily motions like walking and running. A herniated disc protrudes, usually inward toward the spinal cord, where nerve roots begin. This protrusion presses on the nerve root, leading to symptoms down whichever leg that nerve goes to.
- Osteoarthritis. All of the joints of the body can wear down over time. This wear and tear is referred to as osteoarthritis and, while it sounds like it affects the bone, it is more the cartilage that thins out and weakens. Osteoarthritis in the spine can decrease the space through which nerve roots travel. Depending on where that space is lost, sciatica may result.
- Spinal stenosis. The spinal column is open through the center to house the spinal cord, from which all nerve roots branch off. Spinal stenosis is the condition in which that central space narrows, causing nerve compression.
- Spondylolisthesis. The spine is a long row of bones that stack one on another with cartilaginous discs in between. Though connected, it is possible for an individual vertebra to shift forward, backward, or over an adjacent bone. This may occur as a birth defect or result from an injury. As with the other conditions we’ve mentioned here, the shifting of the vertebra in spondylolisthesis presses on a nerve root. Sciatica occurs when the nerve root is located in the low back.
Sciatica doesn’t have to interfere with your life. To see what is causing your pain and what you might do to improve comfort, consult with an experienced spine specialist. Contact our NYC office at 212-606-1004 today to schedule a visit with Dr. Todd Albert.