Sciatica vs. Pinched Nerve Pain — What’s the Difference?
Sciatica vs. Pinched Nerve Pain — What’s the Difference?
Sciatica and a pinched nerve can cause similar symptoms and are often confused with one another. Although similar, they are distinct conditions that require unique treatment. Learn the difference between these two conditions and if you may be experiencing symptoms of sciatica or a pinched nerve.
What Is Sciatica?
Sciatica is a medical condition referring to pain that travels along the path of the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lumbar spine in the lower back through the hips, buttocks, thighs and calves. In most cases, sciatica affects just one side of the body.
One of the main reasons sciatica develops is when a bone spur or herniated disc causes spinal narrowing, a condition known as spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis causes nerve compression, resulting in nerve pain, inflammation and numbness in the affected leg.
Fortunately, most cases of sciatica respond well to non-surgical treatments within a few weeks or months. People with more severe or persistent symptoms may require more intensive treatments to correct symptoms. Severe sciatica may cause bladder or bowel incontinence, severe pain and weakness in the legs.
Sciatica develops when the sciatic nerve is compressed and becomes pinched. While some people may confuse a pinched nerve with sciatica, sciatica is a pinched nerve that only affects the sciatic nerve. While sciatica begins as nerve inflammation, sciatica can cause nerve damage if left untreated.
While sciatica often develops from a bone spur or herniated disc, it can also develop from a tumor or if the nerve becomes damaged from an underlying medical condition, such as diabetes. Certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of developing sciatica, including:
- Age: Sciatica is more likely to develop with age, with one in four older Americans experiencing sciatica pain. Sciatica becomes more common with older age, as many age-related spinal changes can lead to sciatica. For example, old age often increases a person’s chance of herniated discs, a leading cause of sciatica.
- Weight: Being overweight is another risk factor that can increase the likelihood of developing sciatica. Excess weight causes more pressure on the spine, which can cause or worsen nerve compression and sciatica.
- Occupation: Your working environment plays a large role in your spinal health and can increase the risk of sciatica. Physically demanding jobs or a job-related accident, such as a slip and fall or strain from repetitive lifting, can cause nerve compression. Office jobs that require extended periods of sitting can also lead to sciatica because sitting places pressure directly on the nerve.
- Diabetes: Diabetes affects how your body uses glucose — blood sugar — and increases your risk for nerve damage. An unhealthy or damaged sciatic nerve is more likely to cause pain or other uncomfortable symptoms.
- Smoking: Smoking is another risk factor that can increase the chance of developing sciatica. Those who stop smoking may lower their risk of sciatica and nerve-related pain.
- Posture: Good posture promotes healthy spinal alignment and reduces tension throughout the body. Incorrect or poor posture can worsen sciatica symptoms or increase the risk of developing sciatica. Maintaining a healthy posture can relieve nerve compression and reduce the risk of nerve-related pain.
Symptoms of Sciatica
Sciatica can cause various symptoms, but one of the most recognizable and common sciatica symptoms is pain that radiates from the lower back through the buttock and down the back of a leg. You can develop pain or discomfort anywhere along the affected nerve’s pathway.
While pain can occur anywhere along on nerve pathway, it most commonly follows a path from the low back, buttock, back of the thigh and the calf. Pain can vary from a dull, mild ache to a sharper pain. In severe cases of sciatica, patients may experience constant or severe pain.
Although some sciatica pain comes and goes gradually, others may experience a sudden jot of pain that feels like an electrical shock. Sciatica pain often worsens when sneezing, coughing or sitting for extended periods, as these actions aggravate pain and discomfort.
In most cases, sciatica affects only one side of the body, but it can also occur on both sides. Other sciatica symptoms include muscle weakness, tingling and number in the affected foot or leg. It is possible to have numbness in one part of the leg and pain in another region.
In many cases, mild sciatica may improve over time, but you should see a doctor if at-home remedies don’t relieve pain or other symptoms. If symptoms are severe, constant or disrupt daily life, you should plan to see a physician. While less common, sciatica can also hinder bladder and bowel control, leading to incontinence.
What Is a Pinched Nerve?
A pinched nerve occurs when excess pressure is placed on a nerve by surrounding structures, including tendons, muscles, cartilage, bones or tissues. A pinched nerve causes pain, weakness, numbness and tingling. While sciatica is a pinched sciatic nerve, a pinched nerve can occur anywhere in the body.
While a pinched nerve causes pain, a pinched nerve doesn’t hurt all the time. People may experience episodes of pain with periods of relief. Pinched nerves often develop in the back, but they can also develop in the wrists and cause carpal tunnel syndrome.
Fortunately, pinched nerve symptoms often improve with non-surgical treatments and rest. Most people experience relief from pinched nerve symptoms in a few days or weeks, depending on the severity of their symptoms. More severe symptoms may take longer to improve or require additional treatments or surgery.
If a nerve is pinched for a short period, there is typically no long-term or permanent damage, and nerve function returns to normal when the pressure is alleviated. If a nerve is pinched for a long period, permanent nerve damage is possible, making it important to seek treatment as soon as possible.
Potential causes include:
- Weight: Carrying excess weight can cause additional pressure and compression on the nerves. Pregnant women are also at a higher risk of developing a pinched nerve as pregnancy causes the nerve pathways to swell.
- Lifestyle or working conditions: Activities or jobs that require repetitive movements or heavy lifting can increase the risk of a pinched nerve. Bed rest or long periods of little to no activity may also increase the risk of nerve compression.
- Sex: Research has shown that women are three times more likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Underlying medical conditions: Certain medical conditions can increase the risk of developing a pinched nerve. Trauma, osteoarthritis and other conditions can cause bones to thicken, leading to bone spurs that can apply pressure on the nerves. Rheumatoid arthritis is another risk factor for a pinched nerve because it causes inflammation that can compress the nerves.
Symptoms of a Pinched Nerve
Pinched nerves are a common condition, affecting about 85 out of 100,000 adults in the United States each year. While people of any age can develop a pinched nerve, they are most common in adults 50 years or older. Age is a leading factor in a pinched nerve, as spinal degeneration and arthritis may contribute to pinched nerve symptoms.
Pain is the most common and noticeable pinched nerve symptom. In some cases, pain is the only symptom someone may develop. Pain often occurs directly where the pinched nerve is, but some pinched nerves can cause radiation pain, including radicular pain.
You may also experience tingling, numbness, burning or a pins and needles sensation. A pinched nerve can also lead to weakness in the extremities, especially during more physically demanding activities. Many people notice that their hand or foot “falls asleep” due to this tingling sensation.
Certain movements place additional pressure on the spine and cause more severe symptoms. For example, if a pinched nerve occurs in the neck, you may notice neck pain, especially when turning your neck in a certain direction can cause more severe pain. Some people may experience worsening symptoms at night while sleeping.
Early diagnosis of a pinched nerve can greatly improve the success of treatment and managing pain and related symptoms.
Is a Pinched Nerve the Same as Sciatica?
No, a pinched nerve and sciatica are different. While sciatica is a type of pinched nerve, not every pinched nerve is sciatica. Sciatica is when the sciatic nerve is pinched and affected. Pinched nerves can occur anywhere throughout the body and aren’t limited to the spine.
There are nerves throughout your entire body, and any nerve can become pinched or compressed. Certain nerves are more likely to be affected, but that doesn’t mean a pinched nerve only develops in these nerves. While we may think of the back, neck or wrists when discussing a pinched nerve, any nerve can become compressed.
You may experience symptoms of a pinched nerve in your arms or legs. In some cases, people may develop more than one pinched nerve at a time. Sometimes, people may have a pinched nerve in their wrist and sciatica. Whether or not you have a pinched nerve or sciatica, receiving a proper diagnosis and treatment is essential.
The longer a nerve is pinched, the higher the risk of permanent damage. Early detection and prompt treatment often mean the difference between immediate relief and the need for surgery. Nerve pain can be acute, meaning it lasts for a few days to weeks. Chronic nerve pain is when a pinched nerve causes discomfort for three months or longer.
Conditions Similar to Sciatica
Many people believe any condition that causes pain in the buttocks or leg to be sciatica when many conditions can cause these symptoms. It is helpful to understand the source of your leg pain to seek out the proper treatment and find lasting relief. Some conditions similar to and often confused with sciatica include:
Joint problems in the back can also cause symptoms similar to sciatica, including radiating pain. A common cause of joint complications is spinal arthritis, specifically osteoarthritis, which is the most common arthritis that affects the spine. While spinal arthritis can develop anywhere along the spinal column, it is most common in the neck or lower back.
Stiffness and pain are the most common symptoms of spinal arthritis. If arthritis affects the lower back, pain can develop in the lower back, resembling sciatica symptoms. Generally, arthritis is more common with age, as the spine and joints begin to wear down over time.
Sacroiliac Joint Dysfunction
Sacroiliac (SI) joint dysfunction is another condition that may cause symptoms similar to sciatica, including lower back and leg pain. SI joint dysfunction causes leg pain that may be challenging to distinguish between radiating leg pain from sciatica, as these two symptoms often feel similar.
Restricted or excess SI joint motion can result in pain that travels down the leg. While this symptom is similar to sciatica, it requires a different treatment. While non-surgical SI joint treatments are often effective, some patients may require SI joint fusion.
Finally, piriformis syndrome is a spinal condition that causes similar symptoms to sciatica. Piriformis syndrome is when the piriformis, located in the buttock, irritates the sciatic nerve and causes radiating pain down the leg. While this type of pain is incredibly similar to sciatica, it is a different type of pain because nerve irritation doesn’t occur in the lower back.
Many patients experience relief from piriformis syndrome from anti-inflammatory medicine and physical therapy. Those with back trauma or scar formation are often at a higher risk for developing piriformis syndrome.
There are several things to consider when preventing sciatica, including:
- Exercise: Exercise is one of the most important measures to take to minimize the risk of sciatica. Exercising helps strengthen the core and back muscles, stabilizing and supporting the spine. Many people find yoga, guided stretches and other forms of light exercise to ease stiffness and reduce the risk of sciatica.
- Posture: Our daily posture, both when standing and sitting, play an important role in our spinal health. Poor or unhealthy posture can increase the risk of developing sciatica and other spinal conditions.
- Lifting techniques: Improper lifting techniques put a large strain on the back and can cause nerve compression. Poor lifting techniques can also lead to herniated discs, a common condition that causes sciatica. Prioritizing healthy lifting techniques can ensure you don’t place excess strain on the back.
Treatment for Sciatica
Numerous treatments for sciatica are available that can manage pain and other uncomfortable symptoms. Some of the most commonly prescribed treatments for sciatica include:
- Non-surgical treatments: Fortunately, many people see significant improvement with non-surgical treatments, including exercise, hot and cold packs, massage, acupuncture and physician-recommended bed rest.
- Physical therapy: Physical therapy is an excellent tool for people who are experiencing back pain. A physical therapist will create a unique exercise and stretching program to strengthen your core and back muscles. Physical therapy can also improve posture, alleviating excess pressure on the sciatic nerve.
- Medication: Over-the-counter medication can also minimize pain and inflammation related to sciatica. For more severe pain or discomfort, physicians may recommend prescription-strength medication.
- Surgery: A physician may suggest surgery if non-surgical treatments don’t provide adequate relief for sciatica symptoms. Two of the most popular and effective sciatica surgeries are a discectomy and laminectomy.
See a Doctor if You Think You’re Experiencing Sciatic Nerve Pain
If you think you are experiencing sciatica or nerve pain, see a physician as soon as possible. Self-diagnosis isn’t accurate enough to find lasting relief from sciatica and nerve pain. Sometimes, sciatic pain is a symptom of an underlying condition that may be more dangerous than just a pinched nerve that requires immediate treatment.
Contact Spine Institute of North America About Possible Sciatic Pain
The Spine Institute of North America and our team of experts are dedicated to helping you find the source of your back pain and to regain a pain-free life. We understand back pain can make daily life difficult and prevent you from enjoying your life to the fullest. We offer innovative spinal treatments to improve your overall quality of life and regain the freedom of mobility.
Contact a spinal specialist online today to schedule an appointment and learn more about our treatments.