What Is Sciatica?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
April 06, 2020

Sciatica is a distinct pain — it radiates from your lower back down your leg along the sciatic nerve. Most cases resolve within weeks without surgery.

You’ll know sciatica when it strikes. The pain starts in your lower back. But it shoots down the sciatic nerve, generally into one hip and the buttock on that side and then down your leg, most likely along the back of your thigh and calf. Most people feel it only on one side. You might feel discomfort anywhere along the nerve.

The probable cause: something is pinching the nerve in your back. It might be a herniated disc, an overgrowth called a bone spur, or spinal stenosis, when the spine narrows. In rare cases, the cause could be a tumor or damage through an illness like diabetes.

This pain may vary from a mild ache to a jolt or a sharp burn. You might feel numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness in part of your leg or foot. Coughing or sneezing can bring it on. So can sitting for a long time.


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The good news is that mild sciatica usually goes away on its own within weeks. However, the nerve could be permanently damaged in severe cases.

Talk to a doctor quickly if you have any of the following problems:

  1. The pain in your lower back or leg is sudden and severe and comes with numbness or muscle weakness in your leg.
  2. It follows an injury
  3. You can’t control your bowels or bladder.
  4. The pain lasts longer than a week and becomes steadily worse.

Your risk of sciatica goes up with age. Herniated disks and bone spurs come later in life. You’re also more at risk if you are obese; your spine is carrying more weight. Sitting for long periods without any breaks can hurt your spine — for example, if you drive a truck for too many hours. You might hurt yourself carrying heavy loads or twisting.

To protect your back, exercise regularly and build up your core muscles, the muscles in your abdomen and lower back. A Pilates class specifically targets these muscles. You can also do lots of core exercises at home.

If you work at a computer, check out the ergonomics of your work station. Whenever you’re sitting, make sure your seat supports your lower back. You might need a rolled towel or pillow in the small of your back. Keep your knees level with your hips or slightly tilted down.

If you need to stand a long time, rest one foot on a stool.

When you lift something heavy, bend your knees only (don’t bend from the hips), and make sure you use your core muscles. Don’t lift and twist at the same time. Get someone to help if the load is heavy.

Your doctor may order diagnostic tests, such as an x-ray, MRI, or CT scan. Treatment for acute sciatica can include medications, including muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatories, and narcotics. You may need physical therapy (exercises to improve your strength and flexibility) and steroid injections (to reduce inflammation around the nerve).

Remember that sciatica is common and tends to fade without surgery, if you address ongoing stresses to your back.


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April 06, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell