Sun, shorts and sciatica

Michael Cass

Longer, warmer days mean more opportunities to be on the go but some people find that sudden increased activity can trigger bouts of sciatica. Spine specialist Michael Cass explains what causes the condition and what can be done to treat it.

Ah! Spring! The lambs are skipping, the bees are buzzing and it’s still light when you get home from work. Suddenly it’s good to be outside again – hiking over the Downs, digging the garden, renewing friendships with running shoes or golf clubs.....

........And then just as you’re getting into the swing of things, ouch! That nagging back and leg pain that you’d forgotten about comes back with a vengeance giving you shooting pains or tingling and numbness down your leg. Your doctor may refer to it by the medical term of radiculopathy, but you probably call it sciatica.

Sciatica originates in the lower back

Symptoms of sciatica are normally caused by problems in the lower back, putting pressure on the roots of the sciatic nerve. This large nerve runs down through your buttocks and legs which is why you often feel pain, tingling or numbness in these areas. Conditions which cause sciatica include prolapsed (slipped) discs, arthritic spine joints, a spine out of step (spondylolisthesis), or spinal stenosis (arthritic narrowing of the spine), and in very rare circumstances, a tumour or infection.

Don’t stop moving

Back pain and sciatica are very common and will be experienced by most people at some point in their lives, so don’t panic. The vast majority of episodes are self limiting and will settle by themselves if you keep gently moving – whatever you do, don’t take to your bed. You could also take some anti-inflammatories, provided you are safe to take them - speak with your pharmacist or GP. If the symptoms persist more than a few days, consider some therapy such as physiotherapy, osteopathy or chiropracty. Try and do a little homework and contact a recommended practitioner or one with a specific interest in spinal conditions.

80% feel better within six weeks

The good news is that research shows that following the above advice, around 80% of patients will lose most of their symptoms within six weeks. However, if the pain isn't getting better or is so severe it is affecting your ability to get on with life and more than four weeks have gone by, then you may need to see a spine specialist. Tell your GP about all your symptoms, especially if you have weakness in your legs or any new problems with emptying your bladder.

Once you are referred to a specialist spine surgeon, various tests, often including an MRI scan, would be carried out to determine the root problem before treatment options are discussed. Usually surgery is only considered as a last resort, but it is worth pointing out that the outcomes for people undergoing surgery for sciatica are generally excellent.

Enjoy the sunshine and keep moving!