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Mature woman holding her back with her hand in pain while sitting on the sofa

Sciatica vs. Back Pain – What’s the Difference?

Armin Ghayyur

Armin Ghayyur

Back pain is one of Canada’s biggest medical problems. As many as 84 percent of Canadians will have it at one point in their lives. It makes it hard to work, sleep, and even sit without discomfort. 

But your back pain may not be back pain. Sciatica is a distinct medical condition that can cause pain in the lower back. Many people confuse the two, and they shouldn’t. 

What is sciatica vs. back pain? How do they compare to each other, and how do they contrast? What can you do to get treatment for all types of pain? 

Answer these questions and you can live a life free from discomfort. Here is your quick guide. 

Sciatica Pain 

The sciatic nerve runs from your lower back down through your hips. There is one in each leg and they stretch all the way down into your feet. 

Sciatica is pain along this nerve. It can occur in the hips, buttocks, or backs of the legs. 

The pain can be presented in several different ways. Mild cases may present as a dull ache in the lower back. Some people experience burning down their legs, while others are unable to move without sharp, stabbing sensations. 

Sciatica pain symptoms can include numbness or tingling. A person may feel weakness in their muscles as they try to move, even with simple tasks like standing. 

Most cases occur when the nerve is pinched. This happens when bones in the spine become herniated or grow. On rare occasions, a tumor or an accident can damage the nerve. 

Back Pain 

The lower back starts below the rib cage and ends at the hips. Lower back pain can be present in a few different ways. 

The pain can occur in the middle of the lower back. It can also present off to the side or in spots on both sides of the back. 

A person may feel a dull ache. Others may feel like their muscles are stiff and unable to move. In rare cases, a person can experience a stabbing sensation that prevents any movement whatsoever. 

Some other symptoms may surface. A person may feel tingling, especially as they rise out of a seat. They may feel muscle weakness. 

The causes of back pain are varied. Many people strain their backs after lifting a heavy object, and they feel pain from torn muscles. Others pinch their nerves after performing strenuous exercises. 

Others experience spinal stenosis, which occurs when open spaces inside the spine narrow. This puts pressure on the spinal cord and triggers pain. 

Similarities and Differences 

It is easy to confuse sciatica with lower back pain. Both occur in the same place, between the rib cage and the hips.

Both create similar sensations, including dull aches and stabbing. Both can occur from pinching nerves and lead to impaired mobility. 

But there are distinctions between the two. Sciatica extends down into the hips, buttocks, and legs. Lower back pain remains in the lower back. 

Sciatica comes primarily from pinched nerves. A number of things can cause lower back pain, including strained muscles and spinal stenosis. 

It is important to differentiate between the two. A tumor or blood clot in your lower back can cause pain there. Making a differential diagnosis can help you start treatment for that. 

You can figure out which condition you have through a walking test. Take a walk across your room while stepping on your heels. Being unable to keep your feet elevated is a sign of muscle weakness from sciatica. 

Perform the same test while walking on your toes. You will stretch your hamstring muscles as you do so. Feeling pain is a sign of sciatica. 

Treatments 

Most cases of sciatica and lower back pain go away on their own. If you experience pain after a few days, you can treat yourself. 

Avoid putting strain on your lower back, hips, and legs. Do not lift heavy objects and do not stretch your muscles to excessive lengths. 

Try to get some exercise by going for a walk around your neighborhood. This will maintain blood flow to your back, which can help repair damaged tissues. 

When you need to sit down, place a cushion on your seat and back. Avoid sitting for longer than one hour at a time. Get up and perform some light stretches to keep your muscles strong.  

If you don’t notice a change in your pain, you can get help. Both sciatica and lower back pain have very similar treatments.

A doctor can prescribe you medication to soothe pain and combat nerve damage. Follow their instructions and take your pills with plenty of water and rest. 

If you have trouble moving or living with pain, you can get physiotherapy. Physical therapists can conduct a physical examination, then provide you with a personalized therapy plan. You can strengthen your muscles and improve your balance inside your home.

Acupuncture involves small needles that a therapist places into the muscles. The needles encourage blood flow, which can regenerate muscle and nerve tissue. It involves no physical movement, making it perfect for people with low mobility. 

Sciatica vs. Back Pain 

You should know about sciatica vs. back pain. Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve gets pinched. It causes pain through the lower back, hips, and legs. 

Lower back pain can occur from muscle strains, tumors, or spinal stenosis. Both can produce similar sensations and decrease someone’s quality of life. But sciatica impacts the legs, while back pain doesn’t. 

You can receive treatment for both. Mild cases involve bed rest and light exercise. Chronic cases involve medication and physiotherapy. 

Get help for your pain right away. Easy Allied Health provides mobile and in-clinic pain therapy. Book an appointment today. 

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