Sciatica, Radiculopathy

“Sciatica” is a term used to describe pain that is felt going down the leg from the back. The pain may go down the back or front or sometimes the side of the leg. Sciatic pain can affect part of the leg or it may go down all the way to the foot. Usually symptoms are only on one side of the body but certain conditions can cause pain on both sides. Weakness and/or numbness may occur in part of the affected leg and if weakness is present the condition is referred to as a “Radiculopathy”.

What Causes Sciatic Pain?

Sciatic pain results from compression or “pinching” of nerves found in the lower part of the spine. Inflammation and irritation of nerves can also result in sciatic pain.

There are many causes of “pinched” or “irritated” nerves including:

  • Disc Degeneration and Herniations – When the inner “gel-like” part of the disc herniates or pushes through the weakened outer part, the herniated disc material can compress nerves or the spinal cord resulting in sciatic pain. See section on Disc Herniation for more information.
  • Lumbar Spinal Stenosis – Spinal Stenosis refers to narrowing of the spaces of the spine. There are many causes including disc herniations. All of the causes of spinal stenosis can result in sciatic type pain. Spinal Stenosis can sometimes cause sciatic pain in both legs as well. See section on Spinal Stenosis for more information.
  • Piriformis Syndrome – this is a rare condition in which a muscle in our buttocks called the “piriformis muscle” causes compression of the sciatic nerve. Runners and cyclists may develop piriformis syndrome. Pain is usually felt in the buttock and back of the thigh and calf.
  • Pregnancy – Sometimes during pregnancy the weight of the fetus can cause compression of the sciatic nerve. This can result in sciatic pain in the pregnant female.

What are the Symptoms of Sciatic Pain?

Symptoms of Sciatica include:

  • Pain in the buttock or leg that is worse with sitting
  • Burning or Sharp Stabbing pain or Numbness and Tingling in the leg
  • Weakness can sometimes be present in which case it is called “Radiculopathy”
  • Shooting pain that can make it difficult to stand up from a seated position

Diagnostic Testing for Sciatic pain

Since Sciatic Pain is caused by compression or irritation of nerves and nerve roots in some cases your doctor may recommend a certain type of testing called Electromyography or EMG. This is a test which studies the electrical activity of muscles and nerves and can be used to determine where the nerve is being compressed. The test can also be used to determine if any nerve or muscle damage has occurred and can aid in the planning of interventional procedures and/or surgical planning if surgery is felt to be necessary.