The Biology Behind a Sciatica Pregnancy: What is the Sciatic Nerve?

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A shocking 80% of people will experience back pain during their lifetime. Back pain is especially common in pregnant women, with 50% to 70% of expectant mothers experiencing pain in their backs while pregnant, according to the American Pregnancy Association.

So, whether you are planning for a baby or are already pregnant and have spoken the words, “Oh no! My back!”, listen up. Because back pain during pregnancy can interfere with your life, disrupting your sleep and making it painful to perform routine tasks, like picking out a new stroller or painting the baby’s room, it is important to understand this common medical problem and the biology behind it. As the culprit of many back issues during pregnancy, the sciatic nerve is a part of the body with which you should be familiar.

What is the Sciatic Nerve?

The sciatic nerve, formed by nerve roots coming off the spinal cord, is a large nerve that runs through three main areas of the body: the lower back, buttocks and legs. Beginning in the lower back, the nerve continues down the buttocks and then splits into two branches that travel down each leg, sometimes extending as far as the ankle and foot. As it reaches the bottom of the leg, the sciatic nerve branches off into other nerves. Covering a lot of ground, the sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body.

It is also an important nerve. Because the sciatic nerve is made up of axons of both sensory and motor neurons (thread-like extensions of the cell body), it is a mixed-function nerve; this simply means it serves many purposes in the body. The motor neurons within the larger sciatic nerve play a large role in controlling the muscles in the upper and lower leg, especially the hamstring and associated muscles that are responsible for flexing the upper leg. The skin on the lower leg also has sensory receptors that use the sciatic nerve neurons as a delivery service to send messages to the brain, transmitting information about external stimuli such as pain and temperature changes. Because the sciatic nerve helps the lower body move and keep in contact with the brain, it plays a large role in a well-functioning body.

A Sciatica Pregnancy Caused by an Irritated Sciatic Nerve

Usually the delivery system of the sciatic nerve runs smoothly, relaying messages to both muscles and brain to keep the body alert and responsive. However, hiccups can occur along this delivery route–especially near the starting point, where the nerve endings attach to the spinal cord.  The cause? Pressure.

Sciatica symptoms are not normally brought on by damage to the sciatic nerve but rather pressure on the nerve endings near the spinal cord. Therefore, sciatica is not a disorder in and of itself; it is a series of symptoms that alert you to another problem. A variety of medical conditions associated with the spinal cord can cause this pressure; however, many pregnancy women also experience irritation to their sciatic nerve due to their growing baby. When the nerve is compressed, sciatic pain–which can come in the form of tingling, numbness or shooting pain in the back of the legs–occurs due to inflammation of the nerve roots. And because of the long length of the sciatic nerve, when inflamed, it can cause anywhere from mild to severe pain to radiate throughout much of the lower body.

Now that you  understand the biology behind a sciatica pregnancy, you can go on to learn about the causes, symptoms, prevention, and treatment techniques needed to further your knowledge on and reduce your sciatica pain during pregnancy.

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