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Any condition characterised by pain along the course of the sciatic nerve (which runs down the lower back and outer side of the thigh, leg and foot) radiating across the back of the pelvis through the buttocks and into the leg; usually a neuritis and generally caused by mechanical compression or irritation of the fifth lumbar spinal root.
Persons most commonly affected: Adults of both sexes aged under 60.
Organ or part of body involved: Sciatic nerve, affecting leg and foot.
Symptoms and indications: In addition to the pain the foot or parts of the leg may become numb or very weak. Also, one or more muscles of the foot or the leg may undergo temporary paralysis in the course of an attack.
Causes and risk factors: May be inadvertent stressing of the back, due to an awkward movement. However, the commonest cause of sciatica is a prolapsed intervertebral disc pressing on the nerve root, but it may also be due to ankylosing spondylitis or some other condition e.g. spinal tumour.
Prevention: Once the pain of sciatica passes, there are exercises, stretches and other measures that may prevent it from returning. Some sources of sciatica are not preventable, such as disk degeneration, back strain due to pregnancy, or accidental falls. Other sources of back strain, such as poor posture, overexertion, being overweight, or wearing high heels, can be corrected or avoided. Cigarette smoking may also predispose people to pain, and should be discontinued. General suggestions for avoiding sciatica, or preventing a repeat episode, include sleeping on a firm mattress, using chairs with firm back support, and sitting with both feet flat on the floor. Habitually crossing the legs while sitting can place excess pressure on the sciatic nerve. Sitting a lot can also place pressure on the sciatic nerves, so it's a good idea to take short breaks and move around during the work day, long trips, or any other situation that requires sitting for an extended length of time. If lifting is required, the back should be kept straight and the legs should provide the lift. Regular exercise, such as swimming and walking, can strengthen back muscles and improve posture. Exercise can also help maintain a healthy weight and lessen the likelihood of back strain.