You may be cleaning your house or sitting at your desk working when all of a sudden it hits you: a sharp, burning pain that radiates through your lower back and buttocks and down the back of your leg. The most likely culprit is sciatica, which is a painful irritation of the sciatic nerve. But there is a chance arthritis could also be causing your pain. 

If you’re looking into the differences between arthritis and sciatica, you should know that these problems are not synonymous, though they do sometimes overlap.

Arthritis, in short, is inflammation of one or more joints. There are two general types: The “wear-and-tear” type, known as osteoarthritis (OA), and the inflammatory type, which includes rheumatoid arthritis (RA), axial spondyloarthritis (axSpa), and psoriatic arthritis (PsA), among others. This type of arthritis occurs when a person’s immune system attacks itself, resulting in joint inflammation.

Sciatica, however, is a pain that occurs when something irritates or presses on the sciatic nerve. The most common cause of sciatica is a herniated disk (aka a slipped disk), but arthritis can sometimes cause it, too.

If you’re not sure whether your back pain is from arthritis or sciatica, one way to start is by considering the nature/symptoms of the type of pain you’re experiencing. 

Sciatica is a sharp pain that starts in the sciatic nerve, which runs from your lower back through your hip, thigh, and leg. Arthritis pain, on the other hand, makes your joints feel achy and stiff. It also isn’t limited to your lower body, so if you’re also experiencing pain and stiffness in other places — such as the neck, shoulders, ribcage, or hands — that may be something to consider.

You should set up an appointment with a Spine and Nerve doctor to receive a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. 

And it definitely doesn’t hurt to do a little research before your appointment. Read on to learn more about the differences between arthritis and sciatica.

Arthritis vs. Sciatica

If you suspect you might be dealing with arthritis or sciatica, you can learn more about the symptoms of each, the key differences, the treatments, the outlook, and the risk factors.

Understanding Sciatica

Unlike arthritis, sciatica is not a disease but simply a description of pain stemming from the sciatic nerve. “The medical term [for sciatica] is lumbar radiculopathy, and it often happens when the S1 nerve root in the low back gets pinched.

People experience sciatica differently, but the sensation usually starts in the lower back and travels down the back of the leg. Many patients report pain, tingling, numbness, and heaviness; some say it feels like an electric shock. 

Doctors describe sciatica as a type of “referred pain,” which means you sense it in parts of your body other than the one that’s directly impacted. (The pinched or irritated nerve is in your lower back, but you also feel pain or numbness in your buttocks and leg.)

But what’s actually pinching the nerve?

Oftentimes a slipped disc is to blame, and it can happen to anyone. The vertebrae (bones) in your spine are cushioned by disks that are made of a jelly-like substance contained in a tough shell. If you twist or move your body the wrong way, one of those disks could rupture. If you rupture a disk in your lower back and the misalignment puts pressure on the sciatic nerve, you’ll develop sciatica. This type of sciatica usually comes on suddenly.

Sometimes the root cause of sciatica is very simple. A classic example occurs in men who keep an overstuffed wallet in a back pocket. That placement makes them sit awkwardly and can put excessive pressure on the sciatic nerve. A way to avoid this from happening is to start keeping their wallet in their front pocket or switch to a smaller wallet.

Understanding Arthritis in the Spine

In contrast, spinal osteoarthritis (the most common form of spinal arthritis) is often the result of cartilage between the joints slowly breaking down over time due to overuse. It can also occur when the discs between the vertebrae become thinner, leading to more damage, pressure, and friction on the joint cartilage. 

Spinal osteoarthritis usually causes pain and stiffness in the back itself and does not radiate through the leg. Some inflammatory forms of arthritis, such as axial spondyloarthritis and psoriatic arthritis, may also impact the spine by attacking the lining of the spinal joints.

Axial spondyloarthritis (axSpA) also causes joint inflammation — specifically inflammation of the sacroiliac (SI) joints that connect the bottom of your spine to the top of your pelvis. People with axSpA commonly report lower back pain as well as pain in the hips and buttocks. While sciatica usually causes pain in only one side of the buttocks, people with axSpA may find that the pain switches sides — sometimes referred to as “alternating buttock pain.”

Do You Have Arthritis or Sciatica?

Arthritis and sciatica can both present as back pain, but there are distinct symptoms associated with each. Determining which set of symptoms you’re experiencing may give you a better idea of which ailment you’re dealing with, though of course, you’ll need to consult a doctor to get an official diagnosis.

The type of pain you feel is likely a clue as to what condition you’re dealing with. Arthritis pain tends to be duller and makes you feel stiff. Pain from sciatica is often a sharp, shooting type.

Arthritis Symptoms

The pain caused by arthritis will likely vary depending on the type. 

Some shared symptoms of inflammatory arthritis include:

  • Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling that is felt on both sides of the body
  • Joints that are visibly swollen and warm to the touch
  • Joint pain that worsens after inactivity
  • Fatigue / lack of energy

            Malaise

Osteoarthritis symptoms include:

  • Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling that is felt on one side of the body
  • Joint pain that worsens after use
  • Bone spurs
  • Loss of flexibility
  • Grating sensation from bone rubbing on bone

Sciatica Symptoms

Sciatica symptoms include:

  • Sharp, burning pain that radiates from your lower spine down through your buttocks and the back of your leg, usually only on one side.
  • Pain that is more felt in your lower leg compared to your lower back
  • Pain that worsens when you cough or sneeze
  • Pain that gets worse as the day goes on
  • Numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness in the affected leg
  • Difficulty controlling your bowels or bladder (if this is the case, you should seek immediate medical care)

Does Arthritis Cause Sciatica — or Vice Versa?

In some instances, arthritis can cause sciatica. If you have osteoarthritis in your spine, for example, the cartilage in that area degenerates over time. As that happens the sciatic nerve can become irritated. Many older adults with OA also develop bone spurs, tiny, jagged edges of bone that can press on the sciatic nerve.

How Common is Sciatica?

Sciatica is extremely common: around two in five U.S. adults experience sciatica at some point in their lifetime. Some people, however, are more at risk of experiencing sciatic pain because of their lifestyle and other health conditions.

Seek Help For Your Pain

The cause of your pain should never be a guessing game. If you’re a Charlotte, NC resident and you’re struggling with back and leg pain, Southern Pain & Spine Specialists Can Help!

Double board-certified Doctor Ammar Alamarie, and his team of specialists have extensive experience diagnosing and treating a full range of conditions, including Sciatica and Osteoarthritis.

We offer comprehensive treatment options to treat your pain at the source without surgery!

So, if you’re ready to get out of pain, just Click Here to contact us online for more information and to set up your FREE consultation!

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