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SHORT-CIRCUITING A SHOOTING PAIN

Sciatica is a big pain: It is estimated that each year 10 percent of all adults are stricken by this sharp, shooting pain caused by pressure on the nerve roots in the lower spine.

Because the two sciatic nerves extend down the legs to the feet, the pain and/or numbness may run the entire length of the nerve, leaving sufferers weak and sometimes unable to walk. The pain may also stop at any point along the nerve path.

According to the Johns Hopkins medical letter Health After 50, most sciatica cases involve individuals between ages 40 and 60. Sciatica can usually be treated with a few days of rest and over-the-counter pain medications. About half the people who develop sciatica recover within a month, and the remainder are generally better within 12 weeks. However, many people experience repeat episodes.

But the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research says some commonly used remedies -- lumbar belts and corsets, biofeedback, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, massage, acupuncture and spinal injections -- are not helpful.

Back-friendly strategies can reduce the possibility of recurrence as well as the likelihood of an initial episode. And it's important to know when to see a doctor. About 2 percent of sufferers require emergency medical attention; an additional 8 percent may need corrective surgery.

Health After 50 suggests ways to relieve sciatica:

Good posture. Stand with your head up, ears aligned with your shoulders, and shoulders aligned with your hips.

Proper footwear. Shoes with low heels and good support are best. Heels more than 1 1/2 inches high throw weight forward and impair posture.

Exercise. Swimming, walking, and specific strength-training exercises can strengthen the back and abdominal muscles, which support the spine.

Safe lifting techniques. Hips and thighs should do the work -- not your back.

Proper sleeping position. Two positions are back-friendly: the fetal position with a pillow between the knees, and lying on the back with a pillow under the knees.

Ergonomic work space. The height of your seat, desktop and computer screen, as well as the position of your car seat and steering wheel, can help or hinder good posture. If necessary, make adjustments so that you are sitting upright.

Avoid prolonged sitting and standing. Both place considerable pressure on the lower spine. If you must stand for a long time, use a low stool to elevate one foot a few inches, and periodically switch feet.

Adequate calcium intake. To help keep bones strong, older adults should consume 1,500 milligrams of calcium daily through diet and supplements if necessary.

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