Understanding sciatica: Could your back pain be something more?

Each year, back pain effects half of all working Americans. But could this common ailment be mistaken for something different?

We got this email from a viewer—

Dear Dr. Manny,
My husband has been complaining of low back pain for years and just recently went to physical therapy, where they told him it could be sciatica. What is sciatica exactly, and how is it treated?

Sciatica is a condition wherein irritation or compression affects your sciatic nerve, a large nerve that begins at your spinal cord and branches down through your hips, buttocks, and each leg.

Dr. Febin Melepura, a pain specialist at Stanford Pain Sports Medicine in New York City, says, to distinguish if you’re suffering from low back pain or sciatica, focus on where the pain is coming from.

“About 1 percent of patients with low back pain have sciatica, but low back pain is a pain that is localized to the region below the lower rib cage and above the gluteal fold, whereas sciatica is a pain that radiates down one or both legs,” Melepura told FoxNews.com.

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Often, the pain that occurs from sciatica is due to a herniated disk or a bone spur in the spine that presses on the nerve. Many patients say it can feel like a mild throbbing pain or a sharp, burning sensation. Numbness or muscle weaknesses in the leg or foot are also typical symptoms.

Common risk factors for sciatica include obesity, diabetes and aging, as well as sitting for long periods of time.

Dr. Andrew Sama, a spine surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, says the first line of treatment for sciatica is rest, along with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxants.

“If that doesn’t do the trick and improve the symptoms, we often begin physical therapy, and some practitioners advocate [for chiropractic services] or acupuncture,” Sama told FoxNews.com. “If those interventions don’t provide relief, we can often prescribe epidural steroid injections, which are typically effective.”

In rare cases, when non-invasive treatments don’t resolve persistent symptoms, doctors can recommend a small surgical intervention to take the pressure off the nerve, Sama said.

Most experts recommend seeing your doctor if rest and over-the-counter medication don’t make pain subside within seven to 10 days.

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