Sciatica is a serious condition that affects your lower back and one of your legs. It is usually caused by a herniated disc in your lower back. The disc protrudes out and starts to compress one of the nerve roots exiting your spine and travelling down the leg.
Because of this compression you usually get pain, and often tingling and numbness down the leg.
You see, nerves are conductors of our body. They conduct or transmit messages. Messages such as pain, touch, hot and cold sensations travel from your limbs towards your brain through your nerves.
When one of your nerves is compressed or damaged this pathway becomes disrupted and your brain starts to receive a false signal or message. Because the sciatic nerve supplies one of your legs and it’s being squashed in your spine the message that your brain is getting is that your leg is in pain. But essentially there’s nothing wrong with the leg, it’s the nerve that’s causing this pain.
When you have a true sciatica triggered by a lower back disc injury the main pain you feel is usually below the knee. You may have some pain elsewhere such as in your lower back but it’s usually less intense than the pain in the lower leg.
As I mentioned before together with pain in the leg you may also experience tingling, numbness or other abnormal sensations.
Another common sign off sciatica is stiffness or pain with movement through your lower back area such as difficulty bending over.
It may also cause severe pain when you’re trying to lift one of your legs straight up. In fact one of the tests we use in physiotherapy to diagnose sciatic or prolapsed disc is called Straight Leg Raise test. It involves lifting the affected leg straight up to see if it triggers pain.
Sometimes when sciatica is quite severe you may also get weakness in a particular part of your leg or ankle. This may cause the leg to give way when you’re standing or walking.
One very important symptom to watch out for is numbness around your tailbone, genital area or inner thighs. Or if you start to lose control of your bowel, notice difficulty urinating or experience severe muscle weakness in the ankle area such as difficulty getting up from a chair, inability to walk on your toes or on your heels. These symptoms may indicate that you might be developing what’s called cauda equina. This is a very serious condition that requires urgent medical attention.
Cauda equina is a large disc herniation that squashes the nerve roots right at the bottom end of your spinal cord.
It is important to note that although this article may help you get an approximate idea of how serious your pain is it is not intended as a diagnostic tool. We always advise that if you experience severe pain especially when it lasts more than a couple of days to go and see your medical professional or physiotherapist.