The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the human body. It stems from each side of the low back and travels through the buttocks and hamstring, branching down to smaller nerves into the feet. Any irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve can cause an array of symptoms such as numbness, pins and needles, burning, weakness, and shooting pain that travels down the back of the buttock and leg.
Hold your thoughts though, this may not mean that you have sciatica! It is one of the most common things we hear from patients suffering from leg pain, “I have sciatica, I’ve had it for years.” True sciatica occurs when there is a presence of a disc herniation or bulge that presses on the sciatic nerve, irritating it as it exits the spinal cord. Many individuals jump to the conclusion that sharp pain down the leg must be sciatica. This can be an issue because a misdiagnosed condition takes much longer to recover, if at all.
Many individuals will have similar symptoms as sciatica due to a condition called Piriformis Syndrome. The piriformis muscle attaches from the lower spine/sacrum and across the buttock attaching onto the hip bone at the side of your thigh. Underneath this pizza slice shaped muscle, runs the sciatic nerve (in some individuals, it may actually run through the piriformis muscle). Piriformis syndrome occurs when the piriformis muscle goes into a spasm or a state of constant tightening causing compression of the sciatic nerve. Similar to sciatica, piriformis syndrome can cause pain, pins and needles, weakness, and numbness down the leg.
Other diagnosis which can resemble sciatica include: hamstring strains, hip arthritis, sacroiliac joint irritation, bursitis, conditions involving the vertebrae/discs.
It is very important when you feel pain or discomfort that you get properly assessed and diagnosed. Diagnosing yourself based on what your friends or family had experienced, or what Google search tells you, is a recipe for disaster. Proper diagnosis with timely care is what will get you out of pain the fastest. Piriformis syndrome treated improperly can take several months, while when treated with the right exercises and hands on therapy can be resolved within 4 weeks. It is the same in reverse, treating sciatic irritation at the site of the piriformis when the issue is true sciatica coming from the spine wont yield any benefits. Please seek professional advice from a Physiotherapist or Chiropractor if you have any of the symptoms described above and get treated for the right thing, in the right way.
Sciatic nerve irritation doesn't have to be such a pain in the butt!