If you have pain in one of your legs, whether constant or the kind that comes and goes, the cause may come as a surprise — your back. You may be experiencing a bout of sciatica.
While sciatica is one of the most common causes of leg pain, the root of the pain actually lies in the lower back, within its namesake sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the body’s largest nerve and runs from the lower spine down the legs and to the feet.
“If one of the nerves in the lower back is irritated or pinched, then you can have this searing, painful sensation down the leg that can also bring numbness and tingling,” said J. Michael Desaloms, MD, a neurosurgeon on the medical staff at the Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Plano Brain and Spine Center.
While sciatica is one of the most common causes of leg pain, the root of the pain actually lies in the lower back, within its namesake sciatic nerve.
Dr. Desaloms said that sciatica is a very common condition that almost everyone will experience at some point during their lifetime. While the most frequent cause of the compression is a ruptured or herniated disc, often the pain isn’t related to a particular injury or event.
“Some people just wake up in the morning, and their leg hurts and that’s the start of the sciatica,” Dr. Desaloms said.
How to relieve the pain
In many cases, sciatica can be managed at home with over-the-counter pain medications and heat and ice. If the pain is unbearable or goes on for weeks, it may be time to see a doctor, probably a neurosurgeon.
But most people with sciatica or even a ruptured disc don’t need surgery.
The vast majority of sciatica cases are treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications and a healthy dose of patience. Given time, the body usually heals on its own. The approximately 20 percent of patients who do need surgery typically fall into one of the following three categories:
- In addition to pain, they also experience serious weakness in the leg
- The pain is so excruciating that it requires an ambulance ride to the hospital
- The pain doesn’t go away after months of trying other more conservative methods
“The good news is that if you do have to have surgery, it’s a small surgery done minimally invasively as an outpatient,” Dr. Desaloms said. “The recovery period also is relatively short and the relief it provides from sciatica is long lasting.”
So next time you experience leg pain, don’t rule out your back as the cause.