The sciatic nerve is the longest and thickest nerve in the human body, measuring just under 1 inch (2.54 cm) in width, comparative to the diameter of a finger. It runs from the lower spine through the pelvic area and down through the hip and back of the leg. It's the major nerve supplier to the legs, and it branches out to provides movement and feeling to the hip, thigh, knee, calf, ankle, foot and toes. In spite of its length and size, it normally behaves like all other nerves; it transmits signals to and from the muscles and the brain. All movement and feeling in the legs and feet are dependent on the proper function of this nerve and its branches.
When the nerve becomes inflamed, pinched, or injured, the symptoms are known as sciatica. A troublesome sciatic nerve resulting in sciatica can cause acute pain anywhere from the lower back and hips to the feet and toes. Sometimes, it can become pressed or crushed because of a herniated disc in the lower spine. In rare cases, a tumor might cause a compressed nerve. In these severe cases, sciatica can result in a loss of feeling or reflexes, and/or weakness in the hips and legs.
Symptoms of sciatica can include pains such as cramping, burning, or shooting sensations in the hip and thigh, though the pain can extend all the way to the foot and toes. These symptoms can be aggravated by simple movements such as coughing, bending, or squatting, all of which put pressure on the nerve.
Sciatica can be caused by anything from a back injury to poor posture. The condition is rare in people under 30. Pregnant women often suffer from sciatica as the sciatic nerve runs directly under the uterus from the spine to the legs. The developing baby puts pressure on the nerve, resulting in mounting pain through the course of the pregnancy.
Treatment for a painful sciatic nerve begins with an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen. Often, once the inflammation subsides, so does the pain; this is usually the time that a medical professional will prescribe stretches, exercises, and even physical therapy to build up the muscles around the nerve. Recovery can take anywhere from one to three months. Sometimes the sciatic nerve is so compressed that surgery is required to make more room for it. This can include prying up the bone around the nerve or removing a ruptured disc. Most people recover completely from sciatica without surgery.