Sciatica symptoms can be confusing, given that your sciatic nerve runs all the way from your lower back to the bottom of your foot. This means that compression, inflammation, or nerve damage anywhere along the sciatic nerve can trigger a variety of symptoms.
Pain is the body’s way of warning us that something is causing tissue damage. When we take note of pain, it gives us a chance to identify and address the cause of injury and possibly avoid further damage. The same is true of acute sciatica symptoms and if we can successfully root out the causes of sciatic nerve compression early we have a better chance of relieving the problem before permanent nerve damage occurs.
Acute sciatica symptoms
Symptoms of acute sciatica can include:
- Back pain (including radiating pain)
- Pain in the buttock or thigh
- Pain in the leg or foot
- Burning pain in the back, buttock, thigh, leg, or foot
- Dysesthesia (abnormal pain, burning or tingling) when touched
- A dull ache and/or feeling of heaviness in the leg.
Symptoms of sciatica are usually unilateral, meaning that they affect only one side of the body. In some cases, however, sciatica causes bilateral symptoms, affecting both sides of the lower body.
Acute, sharp, shooting pain down one’s leg when walking is a common indicator of sciatica. If this pain is relieved by bending forward at the waist this suggests that the root cause is lumbar spinal stenosis (narrowing in the lower spine). This is sometimes referred to as the ‘shopping cart sign.’
By bending forward, when leaning over a shopping cart or riding a bike, for example, this posture helps to temporarily open up the spaces in the lumbar spine. This has the effect of decompressing the sciatic nerve root. In such cases, sciatica symptoms are usually made worse by sitting or standing for long periods of time. Bending backwards, such as in some yoga postures, or lifting heavy objects can also make sciatica symptoms worse.
Chronic sciatica symptoms
Without adequately addressing acute sciatica, patients may develop symptoms of chronic sciatica such as:
- Numbness in the back, buttocks, legs or feet
- Tingling (pins and needles) or burning sensations in the back, buttocks, legs or feet
- Otherwise altered sensation in the back, buttocks, legs or feet
- Slower or impaired reflexes in the deep tendons
- An inability to extend the big toe properly
- An inability to keep the ankle stable when walking (foot drop)
- Weakness in the leg and/or foot.
Chronic sciatica is usually defined as having symptoms for six months or more. Symptoms of chronic sciatica can differ from acute sciatica symptoms in that the nerve damage may be more extensive, severe, and permanent. Where acute sciatica might involve temporary pain or discomfort, chronic sciatic nerve compression could cause a loss of sensation (numbness), a dull ache in the leg or buttock, and progressive weakness leading to impaired mobility in the leg and foot. The longer the nerve damage continues the harder it is to recover from.
Many people find that their sciatic symptoms vary day to day. Some days symptoms may present as intense shooting pains followed by a dull ache and fatigue in the leg. On another day, a patient might be free of sciatica symptoms. Any number of combinations of symptoms can occur.
Sciatica pain can be chronic or intermittent and may be exacerbated by sneezing or coughing. This is because these sudden movements put intense pressure on the sciatic nerve. The variability of acute and chronic sciatica symptoms can make it tricky to diagnose sciatica, which may delay treatment and increase the risk of nerve damage.
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Sciatica red flags! When to see your doctor about sciatica
Where severe acute symptoms arise or intermittent sciatica symptoms progress to involve a loss of bowel or bladder control or a loss of sensation, this requires immediate medical attention. Such symptoms can be caused by a sudden disc herniation and severe acute sciatic nerve compression. This may make it necessary to undergo emergency back surgery in order to reduce the risk of permanent, severe spinal nerve damage.
Sciatica most often occurs during the fourth and fifth decades of life, although some younger people do develop sciatica. If you suspect that you have sciatica, be sure to talk to your physician or consult a spinal health specialist. Taking action early, be that through surgery, anti-inflammatory medications, massage, acupuncture or back pain decompression devices such as RelaxBackPro can mean the difference between temporary pain and discomfort and permanent nerve damage.