Sciatica and the Sciatic Nerve
The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the human body. It runs from the buttocks down the back of the thigh all the way to the foot, on either side of the body. Sciatica refers to any condition in which undue pressure is placed on the sciatic nerve or injury is caused to it, resulting in pain and/or weakness to the affected area. Sciatica is rarely if ever a condition on its own, and is instead indicative of an underlying issue1. It has many causes.
Pregnancy, specifically the expansion of the uterus and subsequent pressure on the sciatic nerve, is one cause of sciatica. Other causes include herniated discs, inflammation, injury, and spinalstenosis2. “Spinal stenosis is narrowing of the spinal column that causes pressure on the spinal cord, or narrowing of the openings...where spinal nerves leave the spinal column.”3
Research suggests that piriformis syndrome is a more common cause of sciatica than was earlier believed. This is relevant to athletes4 because piriformis syndrome is frequently, though not always, a result of overuse of the piriformis. The piriformis is a muscle in the buttocks attaching at the sacrum and the femur that abuts the sciatic nerve. When the piriformis is injured or goes into spasms, it can entrap, or put pressure on, the sciatic nerve.
Common symptoms of sciatica include lower back pain on one side that extends down the leg. This pain may also be characterized by numbness or weakness. It is this radiation of pain down the leg that differentiates sciatica from other forms of back pain.5
Treatment for sciatica varies depending on the cause. Medical professionals may prescribe rest, ice, or physical therapy. They may administer injections to reduce inflammation.6 In my own experience with sciatica, which was caused by piriformis syndrome, active release techniques (ART) helped relieve the pressure of the piriformis on my sciatic nerve. Following my treatment, I engaged—and still do engage—in stretching and mobility work.