You’re familiar with the sciatic nerve if you’ve ever had lower back pain originating on one side, centered on the buttock, with accompanying sensations down the leg on that side. The sciatic nerves branch off from the spine in the lower back and provide sensations down each leg, ending at the soles of your feet. Leg sensations aren’t always pain but may be tingles or feelings of numbness. In rare cases, you may have symptoms on both sides, but usually only one side shows effects.
The pain from irritation or damage to the sciatic nerve is called sciatica. One of its more common causes is nerve compression at the spine, and while the pain from such compression may be sharp and severe, most cases resolve with conservative treatment over a few weeks.
Sciatica can be an ongoing nuisance, particularly if you can’t easily change factors that contribute to nerve compression. In some cases, however, sciatica symptoms can be warning signs of more serious conditions. In such instances, prompt and aggressive treatment is necessary. Here’s what to look for when sciatica symptoms become dangerous.
Causes of sciatic pain
The nerve compression that causes most sciatica stems from many conditions. Most of these create some sort of change or restriction to the space around the sciatic nerve, and usually near the spine. These conditions include:
- Herniated discs
- Degenerative disc disease
- Spinal stenosis
- Piriformis syndrome
- Lumbar spine injuries
There are also risk factors that increase your chances of suffering sciatica symptoms. Carrying extra body weight, extremely physical work, and pregnancy are a few such factors.
When sciatica symptoms become dangerous
As I mentioned, most sciatic nerve problems are temporary and heal naturally or with conservative intervention, such as pain medication, physical therapy, gentle home exercise, and time. In extreme cases, such as spinal stenosis or osteoporosis-related vertebrae collapse, surgical intervention may be necessary to assure there’s enough room to avoid nerve compression.
However, there are two classes of sciatic nerve condition that may have serious and lasting impact on your health. Each of these should, if suspected, be treated as a medical emergency.
Sciatic nerve damage
Leg weakness or numbness may indicate that the nerve is damaged, particularly if the symptoms occur simultaneously and after a trauma, such as a car accident or fall. Acute nerve compression could lead to permanent damage. Similarly, an injury that severs the sciatic nerve may result in permanent damage from which full recovery is difficult or not possible. Prompt medical attention provides the best chance for the most successful recovery.
Cauda Equina Syndrome
Acute cauda equina syndrome is a medical emergency. Though the condition is rare, it may come on quickly. Symptoms include severe pain in the lower back accompanied by a significant loss of bladder and bowel control. Additionally, you may experience any of a range of sensations, including burning, tingling, or numbness, and muscle weakness in the legs may also develop within 24 hours. Without prompt medical attention, paralysis, impaired bladder or bowel function, and walking difficulties may develop.
Stay on top of sciatica symptoms
It’s important again to note that your chances of having a dangerous sciatica event are small, but also you shouldn’t become complacent about “just a little” sciatic nerve pain. Call or click to request an appointment with me at Westside Pain Specialists, and together we can get to the bottom of your sciatic nerve irritation and help you live a pain-free life.