Shooting pains tend to describe nerve-associated pain. One of the common causes of shooting pains down the back of the legs is sciatica. Sciatica is a broad term used to describe symptoms caused by compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve or its contributing nerve branches. The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve present at the back of the leg, passing from the lower back to the foot. It is responsible for controlling the muscles at the back of the thigh, all muscles below the knee and it provides sensation to the skin of most of the leg.
Sciatica is characterised by a sensation of pain, tingling, or burning passing along the course of the nerve, extending from the lower back down into the leg. The specific location of the pain or altered sensation is dependent upon the nerves that are irritated or compressed. Sciatica is often associated with low back pain.
The most common cause of sciatica is from a prolapsed intervertebral disc. Here a part of the fluid-filled centre of the intervertebral discs (the discs which separate each of the spinal column bones) is allowed to leak out through a tear in the outer disc layer. This prolapse, or disc bulge, causes direct compression or irritation of a nerve which subsequently causes the symptoms of sciatica.
If the shooting leg pain is caused by sciatica, most cases are self-limiting and will get better on their own. Over 9 out of 10 people with sciatica symptoms will get better within 3 months. There are several simple steps that you can take if you are suffering from sciatica to help improve your symptoms and reduce the risk of future episodes.
If you have sciatica, it is most important to try to remain active in spite of your pain; sitting or lying for long periods can actually make your pain worse or prolong symptoms. Gentle exercise can relieve your symptoms and help speed up your recovery.
Simple painkillers such as anti-inflammatories can be effective at relieving your pain. A safe lifting technique is essential and can help reduce the risk of future episodes. If you are overweight losing weight will help reduce the stress on your spine and can help prevent recurrent episodes of back pain or sciatica. Smoking also increases your risk of back problems such as low back pain and sciatica, your doctor can support you to try and stop smoking if you are ready.
If you are unsure about your symptoms, or if your symptoms are severe then you should book a routine appointment with your doctor.
It is important to be mindful of certain symptoms that would require you to seek urgent medical attention. These include; sciatica in both legs, a feeling of numbness between your legs or around your genitals, difficulty with or loss of control of your bowel or bladder, or if your symptoms are associated with you feeling generally unwell with fevers.
There are a variety of conditions that can sometimes be associated with shooting pains. Damage to the nerves from longstanding diabetes can cause shooting pains and numbness. Older patients can sometimes suffer from pains associated with exercise due to a lack of arterial bloodflow (peripheral arterial disease). This is characterised by a gradual onset of pain when walking up a flight of stairs or exercising, that resolves after stopping the activity.
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