At some point in life, 9 out of 10 people will suffer from back pain. In most cases, the trouble will be in the lower back, with sciatica a common complication.
The sciatic nerves are long, large nerves that run from the lower part of the spine, in what are called nerve “roots.” The nerves run down through each of the buttocks and all the way down the backs of the legs. If something compresses or pinches the nerve roots, it can cause lower back pain as well as pain in the buttocks and legs. The source of the problem may be a herniated disc in the spine, but more often than not, the cause of low back pain is not found.
In some cases, the pain is so excruciating that people have difficulty walking. Thankfully, though, the severity of the pain usually belies the severity of the condition. With the right self-care, many people are over the worst of it in a few days and may be fully recovered within a few weeks.
A few years ago, the government’s Agency for Health Care Policy and Research convened an expert panel, which issued a consensus statement with treatment recommendations for low back pain. In general, the guidelines call for bed rest as needed, for up to 48 hours, and taking over-the-counter medications for pain relief. Then, as soon as you feel able, begin to walk and perform gentle (very gentle) stretches.
Some people may get relief from applications of heat or cold. It is usually best to apply cold packs for five to ten minutes at a time within 48 hours of the initial injury. Later on, you may find heat to be more soothing. Physical therapy or chiropractic treatments are also useful for some people.
When symptoms are extremely severe initially, or you do not seem to be improving at all within a week, a doctor’s exam may help determine whether another course of action is advised. Your doctor may also prescribe stronger medicine to help ease the pain while you are waiting for your back to heal.
If sciatic pain is a chronic problem, then you need to talk with your doctor or a back specialist about a long-term approach. These days, doctors consider back surgery a method of last resort, but sometimes it is necessary. There are also a number of things you can do to prevent back problems, such as a regular program of aerobic and stretching and strengthening exercise, improving work place conditions and learning safe methods for bending and lifting.