Sciatica and lower back pain are two different conditions that are often confused due to the similarities in their symptoms. It is important to know the difference between these two conditions and to understand how they may be related to each other. The following is a comparison of sciatica vs lower back pain.

Sciatica is an umbrella term which can describe a number of different conditions with different causes.  Generally, sciatica involves a pain that shoots or radiates down the back of the leg, sometimes as far as the foot and toes.  The pain may be a result of a problem with the large sciatic nerve that travels down the leg.  Pain that travels down the leg in this way is not always generated by the sciatic nerve and structures such as spinal joints and lumbar discs can also cause pain to travel down the leg, this is often referred to as sciatica even though the sciatic nerve is not at fault and is not causing the pain.

Low back pain often coincides with sciatic pain and even when the pain doesn’t shoot down the leg it often radiates to the buttocks, this is where some people may be unsure on whether or not they have sciatica.

Low back pain is usually experienced near the belt line and the pain may be in the middle, or off to one side of the back.  The type of pain ranges from a dull, stiff ache to a debilitating stabbing pain that makes any movement very difficult.

There is an almost endless list on what may cause low back pain.  Structures in the low back that commonly produce pain include joints, discs, muscles and the kidneys.  Back pain very often occurs in people where there is no obvious change in any of the above structures.  Common triggers for a bout of back pain include unaccustomed physical activity, lifting with poor technique, stress, sickness, menstruation, an awkward sleeping position, the list is truly endless.  For some the onset of back pain comes after the body has taken a pounding through sickness, through stress and through a little too much modern lifestyle.  One small event such as sneezing, picking up a newspaper or a kid’s toy or doing a long drive can suddenly trigger off a painful episode.

Sciatica often has a quick sudden onset and unlike some forms of low back pain, it’s often easier to pinpoint what caused it and when it began.  Sciatic pain, particularly pain which radiates all the way to the foot along with symptoms of numbness, tingling or pins and needles should not be ignored, particularly if the symptoms persist.    This is where a professional opinion really matters and is in the best interests of your long-term health.  If an episode of sciatica or back pain prevents you from controlling your bladder or opening your bowels you should seek help urgently to ensure the nerves that control the bladder and bowels are not being compressed.

Low back pain will often resolve by itself and this usually takes up to 6 weeks.  Where pain persists, or is severe there are many forms of treatment available to help.  Physiotherapists use a combination of hands-on treatment and exercise to settle pain and gradually restore movement and function to the lower back.

Sciatica in many cases will take longer to resolve than common low back pain.  Very often the time for full recovery is 3-6 months.  The most important starting point is a thorough clinical exam to establish the cause of the problem, as previously mentioned the pain may not always be truly sciatic in nature.  If the pain only radiates to the knee and no lower the prognosis is often better.  The most effective treatment for this condition often involves a combination of choices- modern medical management of sciatica can be very effective and in combination with physiotherapy and advice on what to do and what to avoid, recovery can happen sooner rather than later.