What Is Sciatica?

Sciatica is a shooting pain that starts in the lower back, radiating into the buttock and down the back of one leg. The pain is often caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve from a herniated disc, bone spurs, or muscle straining.

Your sciatic nerve is formed from the spinal nerves L4 to S3. It is the longest nerve in your body. Everyone has two sciatic nerves, the right and left nerves.

Each sciatic nerve passes deep in the buttock and down the back of the thigh all the way to the heel and sole of the foot.

The sciatic nerve, like most other nerves, performs two basic functions:

  1. It sends signals to your muscles in your leg from the brain
  2. It collects sensory information from the legs and passes this back to your brain.

The sciatic nerve may be irritated, compressed, or inflamed by a number of problems in the lower back, causing sciatica. This term refers to any type of pain or neurological symptom that originates from the sciatic nerve, thus altering the normal functions. When the sciatic nerve is compressed, it is common to experience reduced motor functions and weakness along the path of the nerve in the affected leg.

Sciatica nerve pain may vary, depending on the type and severity of the underlying cause.

Anatomy of Your Spine

Understanding your spine and how it works can help you better understand some of the pain you experience. The spinal column is made of 33 individual small bones, called vertebrae, which are stacked one on top of the other. Muscles, ligaments, nerves and intervertebral discs are also part of your spine. This spinal column holds up your head, shoulders and upper body, allowing you to stand upright and giving you flexibility to twist and bend. It also protects your spinal cord. 

Spinal Cord & Nerves

Your spinal canal houses your spinal cord, nerves and ligaments. Nerves branch out from your spinal canal to the rest of your body. Because the spinal cord and nerves are located in the spinal canal, any changes in the size or shape of the spinal canal can restrict your spinal cord and nerves.

Your spinal canal goes down the middle of each vertebra, is about 18 inches long and has the thickness of your thumb. It houses your spinal cord, nerves and ligaments. Thirty-one pairs of spinal nerves branch off from the spinal cord. These nerves exit the spine through openings called the foramen and travel to all parts of your body.

The spinal nerves act as telephone lines, carrying messages back and forth between your body and spinal cord to control sensation and movement.

Intervertebral Discs

In between the vertebrae are discs that act as cushions and shock absorbers. These discs prevent the vertebrae from rubbing together and allow you to do high impact activities like running and jumping without pain.

Lumbar Spine (Lower Back)

Many doctors explain a patient’s pathology by focusing on one intervertebral segment, or spinal segment. For example, your lumbar spine has five intervertebral segments, termed lumbar segment 1 through 5 (L1, L2, L3, L4, and L5).

Together with the intervertebral disc between them, joints, nerves and soft tissues, your lumbar spine provides a variety of functions, including supporting the upper body and allowing motion in multiple directions. There are nerves that branch off from the spinal column at each level of the spine. They pass through small holes in the back of the lower spine. They then connect together to form the sciatic nerve, which travels into the legs down the back of each thigh and into the calves and feet. The sciatic nerve serves a pivotal role in connecting the spinal cord with the skin and muscles of the thigh, leg and foot.

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