What is sciatica and how can we help?
Have you ever heard the following statements, “I was told I have sciatica”, “my sciatic is killing me”, “I was diagnosed with sciatica”? Sciatica or sciatic pain has been seen to affect as high as 40% of the general population with most instances occurring in those in their fourth and fifth decades of life. While many risk factors may predispose someone to developing sciatic pain, this population tends to be more at risk due to age-related changes that often occur within the musculoskeletal system. Other risk factors associated with sciatic pain may include sedentary lifestyles and professions that require people to lift heavy loads for prolonged periods.
Before we examine the causes of sciatic pain and the ways physiotherapy can help, let’s begin by debunking the myth that sciatica is a diagnosis. While the term sciatica or sciatic pain is often misused as a diagnosis or specific condition, it simply refers to symptoms. The term sciatica is used to simply describe the symptoms that arise as the result of irritation of the sciatic nerve but does not specify the cause of these symptoms. The cause of this irritation can vary significantly depending on the person which will therefore affect individualized treatment plans and rehabilitation.
Let’s talk anatomy! As seen in figure 1, the human body is comprised of nerves that follow trajectories all throughout the body. The sciatic nerve is the large nerve that follows along the back portion of the leg. As previously mentioned, when used correctly, the terms sciatica or sciatic pain are descriptive terms as they describe the pain and/or numbing and tingling that travels along the path of the sciatic nerve but do not refer to a specific diagnosis (see figure 2). Sciatic nerve pain can occur at any time that it becomes compressed. While this compression can occur high up near the nerve root, it can also become compressed anywhere along its path.