What is sciatica?
Sciatica is nerve pain from an injury or irritation to your sciatic nerve. In addition to pain, it can involve tingling or numbness in your back or butt that may also radiate down your leg. More severe symptoms are also possible.
Your sciatic nerve is the longest and thickest nerve in your body. It’s up to 2 centimeters wide (a U.S. penny or a United Kingdom 1 pence coin are about the same width). Despite its name, it’s not just one nerve. It’s actually a bundle of nerves that come from five nerve roots branching off from your spinal cord.
You have two sciatic nerves, one on each side of your body. Each sciatic nerve runs through your hip and buttock on one side. They each go down the leg on their side of your body until they reach just below your knee. Once there, they split into other nerves that connect to parts farther down, including your lower leg, foot and toes.
Having sciatica means you can experience mild to severe pain anywhere with nerves that connect to the sciatic nerve. The symptoms can affect your lower back, hips, buttocks or legs. Some symptoms may extend as far down as your feet and toes, depending on the specific nerve(s) affected.
Types of sciatica
There are two types of sciatica. Regardless of what type you have, the effects are the same. The types are:
- True sciatica. This is any condition or injury that directly affects your sciatic nerve.
- Sciatica-like conditions. These are conditions that feel like sciatica, but happen for other reasons related to the sciatic nerve or the nerves that bundle together to form it.
Healthcare providers tend to refer to both types as just “sciatica.” The differences between them usually only matter when your healthcare provider determines how to treat it.
How common is sciatica?
Sciatica is a very common condition. About 40% of people in the U.S. experience some form of sciatica during their lifetime. It rarely happens before age 20 unless it’s injury-related.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of sciatica?
Sciatica symptoms can include:
- Pain. Sciatica pain happens because of pressure on the affected nerve(s). Most people describe sciatica pain as burning or like an electric shock. This pain also often shoots or radiates down the leg on the affected side. Pain commonly happens with coughing, sneezing, bending or lifting your legs upward when lying on your back.
- Tingling or “pins and needles” (paresthesia). This is similar to the feeling you have when a leg falls asleep because you sat cross-legged.
- Numbness. This is when you can’t feel sensations on the skin in the affected areas of your back or leg. It happens because signals from your back or leg are having trouble reaching your brain.
- Muscle weakness. This is a more severe symptom. It means that muscle command signals are having trouble reaching their destinations in your back or legs.
- Urinary incontinence or fecal incontinence. This is a very severe symptom. It means signals that control your bladder and bowels aren’t reaching their destinations.
What causes sciatica?
Sciatica can happen because of any condition that affects the sciatic nerve. It can also happen because of conditions affecting any of the five spinal nerves that bundle to form the sciatic nerve.
Conditions that can cause sciatica include:
- Herniated disks.
- Degenerative disk disease.
- Spinal stenosis.
- Foraminal stenosis.
- Tumors, cysts or other growths.
- Conus medullas syndrome.
- Cauda equina syndrome.
What are the risk factors for sciatica?
Because sciatica can happen for so many reasons, there are many potential risk factors, which include, but aren’t limited to:
- Having a current or previous injury. An injury to your spine or lower back increases your risk of developing sciatica.
- Normal wear-and-tear. As you get older, normal wear-and-tear on your spine can lead to pinched nerves, herniated disks and other conditions that can cause sciatica. Age-related conditions like osteoarthritis can also play a role.
- Having excess weight or obesity. Your spine is like a construction crane when you stand upright. The weight you carry in the front of your body is what your spine (crane) has to hoist. Muscles in your back are like the winch and cable, pulling to keep you vertical. The more weight you have, the more your back muscles have to work. That can lead to back strains, pain and other issues.
- Having insufficient core strength. Your “core” is the term for the muscles of your back and abdomen (stomach area). Like in the crane analogy, having a stronger core is like upgrading the crane’s components to handle a heavier load. The muscles of your abdomen are important because they help anchor your back muscles.
- Your job. Jobs that require heavy lifting, a lot of bending, or working in awkward or unusual positions may increase your risk of low back problems. However, jobs with prolonged sitting — especially without proper back support — may also increase your risk of low back problems.
- Not using good posture and form when lifting. Even if you’re physically fit and active, you can still be prone to sciatica if you don’t follow proper body form during weight lifting, strength training or similar activities.
- Having diabetes. Type 2 diabetes increases your risk of diabetes-related peripheral neuropathy. That damages your nerves, including any of the nerves that can cause or contribute to sciatica.
- Physical inactivity. Sitting for long periods and a lack of physical activity can contribute to an increased risk of sciatica.
- Using tobacco. Nicotine use can affect circulation and increase your risk of chronic pain. That includes conditions like sciatica.
- Unknown causes. Many cases of sciatica don’t have a cause that healthcare providers can find.
What are the complications of sciatica?
Most people recover fully from sciatica. However, a possible complication of sciatica is chronic (long-term) pain.
If there’s serious damage to an affected nerve, chronic muscle weakness, such as a “drop foot,” might happen. That’s when nerve damage causes numbness in your foot, which makes normal walking difficult or even impossible.
Sciatica can also potentially cause permanent nerve damage, resulting in a loss of feeling in the affected legs.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is sciatica diagnosed?
A healthcare provider can diagnose sciatica using a combination of methods. They’ll review your medical history and ask about your symptoms. They’ll also do a physical examination. That exam will include:
- Walking. Sciatica often causes visible changes in how you walk. Your provider will watch for those changes as part of diagnosing sciatica.
- Straight leg raise test. This involves having you lie on an exam table with your legs straight out. They’ll slowly raise your legs one at a time toward the ceiling and ask when you start to feel pain or other symptoms. These can help pinpoint the cause of sciatica and how to manage it.
- Other flexibility and strength checks. These can help your provider determine if any other factors are causing or contributing to your sciatica.
What tests will be done to diagnose this condition?
Several tests can help with diagnosing sciatica and ruling out similar conditions. The most common or likely tests include, but aren’t limited to:
Management and Treatment
How is sciatica treated, and is there a cure?
Treating sciatica usually involves trying to decrease pain and increase mobility. Many treatments are things you can do yourself.
There are several treatment options if you have sciatica that won’t go away or is more severe. Surgery might be an option if your case is severe or other treatments don’t help.
Depending on the cause, milder cases of sciatica usually get better with self-treatment.
NOTE: Pain that’s moderate to severe, with numbness and tingling or muscle weakness are all symptoms that need professional medical care. You shouldn’t try to self-treat them.
Self-treatments can include:
- Ice. Cold or ice packs can help reduce pain and swelling during the first few days after sciatica pain starts. You can use an ice pack or a bag of frozen vegetables for this (but always wrap them in a towel to prevent cold-related injuries to your skin). Apply cold for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day.
- Heat. After the first several days of using cold or ice, switch to a heating pad or warm compress. Apply heat for 20 minutes at a time. If you’re still in pain, switch between hot and cold packs — whichever best relieves your discomfort.
- Over-the-counter medicines. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are usually the first choice. They reduce pain, swelling and inflammation.
- Stretching and activity. Learning how to stretch properly from an instructor with experience with low back pain can be a major help. They may also be able to help you work your way up to other general strengthening, core muscle strengthening and aerobic exercises.
If the self-care treatment approach doesn’t help after a few weeks, you should talk to a healthcare provider.
Conservative treatments are a step up from self-treatment. Your healthcare provider can offer these as options if self-care wasn’t helpful or if your symptoms are severe enough to need more involved care.
Conservative treatments can involve similar treatments to self-care, but with your healthcare provider guiding you. They can also involve the following:
- Prescription medications. Painkillers, muscle relaxers and other medications may help with sciatica symptoms. Other medications, like tricyclic antidepressants and anti-seizure medications, may also help if you have chronic or nerve-based pain.
- Physical therapy. The goal of physical therapy is to find exercise movements that decrease sciatica by reducing pressure on the nerve. Options include stretching exercises or low-impact activities like walking, swimming or water aerobics.
- Spinal injections. Injections like corticosteroids may provide short-term relief (typically up to three months). These usually involve local anesthesia, so there’s less discomfort. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about this process.
- Alternative therapies. These treatments are increasingly popular and offer options other than standard medical therapies or medications. They include seeing a chiropractor for spine adjustments, yoga, acupuncture and more. Massage therapy might also help muscle spasms that occur with sciatica. Biofeedback can also help you manage pain and relieve stress.
Surgery options for sciatica
Surgery may be the best option when sciatica is more severe. Usually, healthcare providers don’t recommend surgery unless you have symptoms that indicate nerve damage is happening or imminent. They may also recommend surgery if you have severe pain that prevents you from working or going about your usual routine, or if your symptoms don’t improve after six to eight weeks of conservative treatment.
Surgery options to relieve sciatica include:
- Diskectomy. This is a surgery that removes fragments or small sections of a herniated disk that are pressing on a nerve.
- Laminectomy. Each vertebra has a rear section called the lamina (it’s on the side of the vertebra just underneath the skin of your back). A laminectomy involves removing a section of the lamina that’s pressing on spinal nerves.
What are the possible complications or side effects of treatment?
The possible complications and side effects depend on many factors, especially the specific treatments used, the severity of your symptoms, what caused your sciatica and more. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you about the possible side effects and complications that are most likely. They can also advise you on managing, minimizing or avoiding them.
How soon after treatment will I feel better?
Recovery time from sciatica depends on the specific treatment, the severity of your symptoms, their cause and more. Many cases of sciatica go away within four to six weeks without needing professional medical treatment.
More severe cases may also take weeks or months to get better, especially if you have more severe symptoms. Waiting too long to get treatment for sciatica — generally more than six months — also makes a good outcome less likely, so it’s important not to wait too long to talk to a healthcare provider.
Is sciatica preventable?
Some causes of sciatica are preventable, but others happen unpredictably or for unknown reasons. For the causes that aren’t preventable, it may still be possible to reduce your risk of developing them.
The following can help prevent sciatica or reduce the risk of it happening:
- Maintain good posture. Follow good posture techniques while you’re sitting, standing, lifting objects and sleeping.
- Quit (or don’t start) using tobacco products. Nicotine from any source (including vaping) reduces blood supply to your bones, which can weaken your spine and its various components.
- Reach and maintain a weight that’s healthy for you. Your primary care provider can guide you on how to eat and get physical activity. Make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D for bone health, too.
- Stay active. Physical activity can include everything from stretching to strength training. Increasing core strength and flexibility can improve back pain. Other forms of activity, such as aerobic exercise, can also help you reach and maintain a weight that’s healthy for you.
- Protect yourself from falls. Wear shoes that fit and keep stairs and walkways free of clutter to reduce your chance of a fall. Make sure rooms are well-lit, and there are grab bars in bathrooms and rails on stairways.
- Take time to recover if needed. Don’t try to work through back pain. That can lead to even worse injuries. Back pain doesn’t have to keep you from being active, either. You can still participate in low-impact activities such as swimming, walking, yoga or tai chi.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have sciatica?
Milder cases of sciatica generally go away on their own with time and self-treatment. Most people (between 80% to 90%) with sciatica get better without surgery.
If your sciatica pain doesn’t improve after a few weeks of self-treatment, or you have concerns that you aren’t recovering as quickly as hoped, you should talk to a healthcare provider.
How long does sciatica last?
Sciatica often doesn’t last longer than six weeks. When it does, your healthcare provider may recommend more involved treatments, including surgery.
When can I go back to work?
When you can return to work or other regular activities depends on several factors. Those include your symptoms, the treatments you receive and more. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you if you can return to work, and what precautions or changes you might need if you do.
What’s the outlook for this condition?
Overall, the outlook for sciatica tends to be very good. Long-term issues aren’t common unless you have more severe symptoms.
When should I see my healthcare provider, or when should I seek care?
You should talk to your healthcare provider if you have moderate or worse pain, or if you experience any tingling, pins-and-needles sensations or numbness.
When should I go to the emergency room?
You should get emergency medical attention if you experience the following:
- Any muscle weakness.
- Loss of bowel or bladder control.
- Severe pain that keeps you from your usual activities and lasts for more than a few hours.
- Sudden severe pain, numbness or any other sciatica symptoms immediately after a fall, car crash or any other injury-causing event.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can sciatica occur down both legs?
Sciatica usually affects only one leg at a time. However, sciatica can occur in both legs in rare cases.
Does sciatica occur suddenly, or does it take time to develop?
Sciatica can come on suddenly or gradually. It depends on the cause. A disk herniation or injury can cause sudden pain. Arthritis in your spine or other degenerative conditions develop slowly over time.
Can weight gain during pregnancy cause sciatica?
Sciatica is common in pregnancy but isn’t usually related to pregnancy weight changes. Two main factors better explain why it’s more likely to happen during pregnancy.
The first explanation has to do with pregnancy-related hormones. Those hormones can cause a loosening of ligaments and connective tissue in your spine. That loosening makes your spine more flexible, which can cause disk slippage, pinched nerves and sciatica.
The weight and position of the fetus can also press on the nerve.
The good news is there are ways to ease sciatic pain during pregnancy, and the pain should go away after birth. Physical therapy and massage therapy, warm showers, heat, medications and other measures can help. Practicing good posture techniques during pregnancy can also help.
How can I tell if pain in my hip is a hip issue or sciatica?
Hip problems, such as arthritis in your hip, usually cause pain in your groin, or pain when you put weight on your leg or move it around.
If your pain starts in your back and moves or radiates toward your hip or down your leg, or you have numbness, tingling or weakness, sciatica is the most likely cause.
Sciatica vs. radiculopathy — what’s the difference?
Radiculopathy is a broader term that describes the symptoms caused by a pinched nerve in your spine. Sciatica is the most common type of radiculopathy.
Should I rest if I have sciatica?
Rest is helpful during the first two days you have sciatica. But total rest isn’t likely to help, and physical inactivity can make your pain worse and slow healing. The goal is to find a balance so you’re active enough to stay flexible and maintain strength but not make sciatica worse or injure yourself. A healthcare provider can guide you on how to find this balance and help you recover.
Can sciatica cause my leg and/or ankle to swell?
Sciatica from a herniated disk, spinal stenosis or bone spurs can cause inflammation or swelling in the affected leg. Piriformis syndrome complications can also cause leg swelling.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Sciatica pain in your back, butt or legs can disrupt your life in many ways. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to help yourself recover. You can often treat milder cases yourself. More intense symptoms are also often treatable. Surgery usually isn’t necessary, but it’s an option if your symptoms are severe. With treatment, you can put sciatica behind you and return to living on your terms.
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