Sciatica is a pain that affects 10% to 40% of people, typically as they get older. Sciatica takes its name from the sciatic nerve, the largest nerve in the body, which runs along the back of each leg. People with sciatica often experience sharp, burning pain from the buttocks and hip area down the back of the leg. Usually people with sciatic nerve pain experience pain along one leg but not both. In addition to pain, sciatica can cause reduced foot strength, leg weakness, and loss of sensation in the lower leg or the top of the foot.
What causes sciatica? The most common cause of sciatica is the compression of the nerve root by a vertebra. This compression may be brought about by an injury, but more frequently happens after years of sitting for long periods, after years of bending activity, or from obesity. Other causes of sciatica include inflammation, infection, tumors, and diabetes.
In order to diagnose the cause of your sciatica, your healthcare provider can order a nerve conduction study or MRI to confirm the cause of sciatica. These imaging tests should be ordered especially if the following “red flags” are present:
- Suspected tumor or abscess
- Urinary retention
- Sciatica symptoms present in both legs
Sciatica can be acute (lasting a few weeks) or chronic (life-long). People with acute sciatica may experience reoccurring episodes, which may eventually turn into persistent, chronic pain.
It may be possible to prevent episodes of sciatica by maintaining good posture, exercising to improve back strength, eating a healthy diet, and squatting instead of bending when picking up objects.
Self-care methods like taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications (e.g., ibuprofen), stretching, and modifying certain positions (such as when reclining), can help alleviate sciatic nerve pain.
Healthcare providers whose patients don’t find relief from self-care methods may recommend a variety of treatments, including physical therapy, muscle relaxants, prescription pain relievers, or steroid injections. Severe cases of sciatica that haven’t responded to other treatments may warrant surgery to relieve compression on nerve roots.
Philip Hsu, Carmel Armon, and Kerry Levin, “Acute lumbosacral radiculopathy: Pathophysiology, clinical features, and diagnosis,” UptoDate, updated June 30, 2019.
Philip Hsu, Carmel Armon, and Kerry Levin, “Acute lumbosacral radiculopathy: Treatment and prognosis,” UptoDate, updated June 3, 2019.
Becky Young, “Sciatica Pain: How Long Does It Last and How to Relieve Symptoms,” Healthline, June 1, 2018, https://www.healthline.com/health/back-pain/how-long-does-sciatica-last
Marco Funiciello, “10 Quick Facts About Sciatica,” Spine-Health, updated December 20, 2019, https://www.spine-health.com/blog/10-quick-facts-about-sciatica
Harvard Health Publishing, “Sciatica: Of all the nerve,” Harvard Medical School, February 2016, https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/sciatica-of-all-the-nerve