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Sciatica (pronounced sai-AT-ti-ka) is the name given to any pain stemming from the irritation of the sciatic nerve. Anything that irritates this nerve can cause pain that ranges from mild to severe; usually, from a compressed nerve root in the lumbar (lower) spine. Often, the term "sciatica" is confused with general back pain. However, sciatica is not just limited to the back.
The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in the human body. It runs from the lower back, through the buttocks, and down the legs, ending just below the knee. This nerve controls several muscles in the lower legs and allows that area to be sensitive to touch.
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Sciatica is not, in fact, a condition, but rather a symptom of another problem involving the sciatic nerve.
According to MediLexicon's medical dictionary, sciatica means "Pain in the lower back and hip radiating down the back of the thigh into the leg, initially attributed to sciatic nerve dysfunction (hence the term), but now known to usually be due to herniated lumbar disk compressing a nerve root, most commonly the [5th lumbar vertebra] or [1st sacral vertebra] root."
It is often assumed that there is sciatic nerve root entrapment, resulting in the compression of the nerve. Pain and symptoms being transmitted or referred from the low back to one of the buttocks and down the back of the leg along the pathway of the sciatic nerve. Hence the term sciatica.
The exact cause of sciatica is not fully understood but is commonly thought to involve a slipped or herniated disk. This means one of the disks, which lie between each of the vertebra in the lower back (lumbar area), has cracked and allowed some of the inner disk material to protrude out, putting pressure on the adjacent nerve root, which in this case is the sciatic nerve. The term 'lumbago' is often banded about as well which is a general term for low back pain. However, some people have been found to have a slipped disk but have no pain.
There are two types of sciatica
Acute sciatica (short-term)
Acute sciatica does not typically require professional treatment; symptoms can be significantly reduced with the use of accessible over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers combined with hot and cold packs and exercise.
Chronic sciatica (long-term)
Chronic sciatica, on the other hand may require physical therapy (UK: physiotherapy), which may include exercise, applied heat, and other techniques. In rare cases surgery may be required.
Acute sciatica may last between four to eight weeks, while chronic sciatica persists for longer.
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