Arthritis Versus Sciatica: What's The Difference?

Lower back pain can be both uncomfortable and debilitating. According to WebMD, it's one of the most common causes of missed work in the United States. It can be acute, brought on suddenly by something like muscle strain or sports injury, or chronic, and could stem from a more persistent ailment.

With only five vertebrae — less than the neck and the middle part of your back — to bear the weight of your upper body, the lower back experiences a great deal of stress (via Johns Hopkins Medicine). That stress can, over time, lead to injuries or chronic conditions such as arthritis or sciatica. However, both of these conditions can present similar symptoms, with pain that can radiate from the hip joint or lower back and down the leg, according to Spine-Health. Because of this, if you're suffering from lower back pain, you might be wondering which of these conditions you actually have.

Both have similar symptoms

Arthritis is brought on by inflammation in the body, and the term can refer to several conditions that can affect your joints (via Healthline). A person with arthritis can be afflicted with the "wear and tear" type, known as osteoarthritis, or an inflammatory type, which include rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis as well as axial spondyloarthritis (via CreakyJoints). According to the Arthritis Foundation, osteoarthritis, the most common form, leads to a deterioration of the cartilage that cushions the places where the bones meet at the joints. Over time, this causes the bones to rub together, leading to stiffness and pain.

Sciatica presents as sharp pain that travels down the lower back and to your leg (via the Mayo Clinic). It's usually caused by something, such as a herniated disc or bone, pressing against the sciatic nerve. The pain caused by sciatica tends to be located on one side of the body and can, at times, feel like a quick, sudden jolt, not unlike an electric shock. According to Healthline, symptoms of osteoarthritis include restricted movement, aching, stiffness, and swelling.

Both conditions can be treated

Age, obesity, diabetes, and previous injuries can all be contributing factors for sciatica (via Cleveland Clinic). Interestingly, osteoarthritis can also lead to sciatica. As with sciatica, age and weight can also contribute to osteoarthritis, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can also be brought on by repeated stress on the joints, bone deformities, and metabolic diseases such as hemochromatosis. Gender can play a role as well, as women seem more likely to develop osteoarthritis.

Both arthritis pain and sciatica pain can usually be managed with over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen (via Healthline). Sciatica pain tends to resolve on its own after a few weeks, but before that point, the pain is often severe enough that some kind of treatment is needed. For both arthritis and sciatica, that treatment can involve some physical therapy like gentle stretching to help provide some pain relief. For severe cases of both conditions, surgical intervention might be necessary. If you're having lower back pain, it's advisable to talk with your doctor to figure out what may be causing it and determine what the best treatment options may be.