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Sciatica Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

Reviewed on 5/3/2016

What Is Sciatica?

Illustration of sciatica.

Sciatica is a pain that radiates from the low back down a lower extremity; it is caused by irritation of the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve transmits sensation from the lower extremities and lumbar area of the low back. It is common for people to recover from sciatica without a surgical operation.

Sciatica Symptoms

Photo of a person with lower back pain due to sciatica.

Low back pain that radiates to the hip, buttock, and down a lower extremity is the most common symptom of sciatica. Sometimes sciatica pain worsens with bending at the waist, coughing, sitting, or sneezing. Sciatica can also cause tingling, numbness, or weakness of the leg. Sciatica symptoms can occur rapidly and persist for weeks.

Sciatica or Other Back Pain?

Photo of a man lifting a box.

Back pain is extremely common. There are many causes of lower back pain that are not sciatica. Frequently, low back pain is caused by back strain of muscles and ligaments. The characteristic feature of sciatica is pain that radiates down the leg from the low back, often reaching the foot.

Who Is Likely to Get Sciatica?

Photo of pregnant woman holding her back.

Sciatica is common as we reach middle age. Pregnancy can lead to sciatica as a result of direct pressure on the sciatic nerve by the enlarging uterus. Other causes of sciatica are degenerative spinal arthritis and lumbar disk herniation.

Cause: Herniated Disk

Cut away photo of a slipped disc.

Disk herniation is a common cause of sciatica. The disk cushions between the spinal vertebrae weaken and are more vulnerable to injury as we age. The weakened disk can herniate its gel-like center to cause direct pressure on the nerves in the spinal canal that form the sciatic nerve.

Cause: Spinal Stenosis

A CT scan of the spine shows spinal stenosis.

Degeneration of the vertebrae of the spine can lead to narrowing of the spinal canal; this is called spinal stenosis. This can lead to pressure on the spinal nerve roots that form the sciatic nerve. Sciatica can be a symptom of spinal stenosis.

Cause: Spinal Tumors

MRI of a spinal tumor.

Tumors are rare causes of sciatica when they put direct pressure on the sciatic nerve or its nerve roots.

Cause: Piriformis Syndrome

Illustration of piriformis muscle.

The piriformis muscle in the buttock can sometimes lead to irritation of the sciatic nerve. This is referred to as piriformis syndrome.

A Fat Wallet Can Trigger Piriformis

Photo of a man removing his wallet from his back pants pocket.

A wallet or object that is in the back pocket during prolonged sitting can lead to piriformis syndrome and irritation of the sciatic nerve, causing sciatica. Placing the wallet in the front pocket instead can avoid the problem.

Cause: Infection or Injury

A pelvis x-ray.

Rarely, sciatica can be caused by injury, fracture, infection, or inflammation. Any condition that leads to direct pressure or irritation of the sciatic nerve can cause sciatica. Sometimes, no specific cause of sciatica can be detected.

Diagnosing Sciatica: Exam

Photo of doctor examining a sciatica patient.

To detect the cause of sciatica, the doctor will ask about all the symptoms the patient is experiencing as well as their location and aggravating or relieving features. During the examination, the patient may be asked to do various maneuvers with the lower extremities.

Diagnosing Sciatica: Imaging

Photo of a person getting an MRI.

Various tests, such as MRI scans, CT scans, and others, may be used to help detect the cause of sciatica. With a precise diagnosis, the treatment program can be optimized.

Complications Related to Sciatica

Photo of a person using a smart phone.

When sciatica is complicated by uncontrolled loss of bowel or bladder control, it is considered an emergency. These symptoms are evaluated rapidly to consider whether or not an immediate surgical operation is necessary.

Sciatica Relief: Use Ice and Heat

Photo of hot and cold compress for pain relief.

Home remedies for new sciatica include heat-pad or ice-pack applications. Each can be applied for approximately 20 minutes every couple of hours. Some benefit from alternating heat and ice applications.

Sciatica Relief: Medication

Photo of a person taking pain medication for sciatica.

Medications that are over the counter and are used for sciatica include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen (Tylenol). Cortisone injections into the spinal canal can be helpful for selected patients.

Sciatica Relief: Stretching

Photo of woman stretching her legs and lower back.

Strict bed rest is recommended less often than in the past. Physical therapists are experts at designing optimal exercise programs for sciatica. Brief walking can be helpful for certain people with sciatica.

Sciatica Relief: Injections

Photo of syringe.

Spinal injection of cortisone medication (steroids) can be beneficial for severe sciatica. This medication rapidly reduces the inflammation around the nerves.

Sciatica Relief: Surgery

Photo of a surgeon during an operation.

For persisting sciatica that does not respond to medical management, surgical operation can sometimes be required. Various operations differ depending on the exact condition causing the sciatica. Sometimes disk material and bone is actually removed to free up the adjacent irritated nerves.

Sciatica Rehab

Photo of a woman performing physical therapy after sciatica surgery.

After spinal surgery, there are often activity restrictions, as tissues must heal. Physical therapy is often prescribed to strengthen the back and promote healing by avoiding injury. The goal is eventual return to one’s usual activities.

Complementary Therapies

Photo of acupuncture needles.

Adjunctive therapies, such as massage, yoga, osteopathic & chiropractic care, and acupuncture, can sometimes be helpful for back pain.

Preventing Sciatica

Photo of a man lifting a box from the floor.

Sciatica can recur. To minimize the chances of recurrence, people should exercise regularly, maintain proper posture, and protect the back by bending at the knees to lift heavier objects.

Sciatica Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

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