The sciatic nerve begins from the lower spine on either side. It travels deep in the pelvis to the lower buttocks. From there, it passes along the back of each upper leg and divides at the knee into branches that go to the feet. Sciatica is an irritation of the sciatic nerve.
Sciatica is caused by irritation or pressure on the sciatic nerve. This can be the result of:
- Herniated disk—the cushions between the bones of your spine bulge and press on the nerve as it exits the spinal column
- Arthritis in the lower back
- Spinal stenosis—narrowing of the spinal canal in the lumbar area
- Spondylolisthesis—slippage of a bone in the lower back
- Cauda equina syndrome—nerve roots at the base of the spinal cord are compressed
- Piriformis syndrome— spasm of piriformis muscle
Sciatica is more common in men. Other factors that may increase your chance of sciatica include:
Lifestyle and personal health factors, such as:
Occupational factors, such as:
- Heavy manual labor
- Heavy lifting
- Exposure to vibrations
- A job that requires standing for long periods of time and forward bending
Health conditions, such as:
- Fractures in the back
- Metabolic problems, such as diabetes
Sciatica causes symptoms that can range from mild to severe. In general, sciatica may cause:
- Burning, tingling, or a shooting pain down the back of one leg
Pain in one leg or buttock may get worse with:
- Standing up
- Weakness or numbness in a leg or foot
More serious symptoms associated with sciatica that may require immediate medical attention include:
- Continuing weakness in a leg or foot
- Numbness in groin or the buttocks
- Difficulty walking, standing, or moving
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Fever, unexplained weight loss, or other signs of illness
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor will pay particular attention to your back, hips, and legs. The physical exam will include tests for strength, flexibility, sensation, and reflexes.
Imaging tests are used to evaluate the affected area:
Your doctor may also need to test your nerves. This can be done with a nerve conduction study.
The goal of treatment is to reduce sciatic nerve irritation.
Treatment options include:
Bed rest is not generally recommended. It may be suggested for no more than 1-2 days in those with severe pain. Your doctor may recommend that you restrict certain activities for a period of time and then resume them as soon as possible. You may be able to shorten your recovery time by staying active and exercising.
Medications used to treat sciatica include:
- Over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers
- Muscle relaxers for muscle spasms
- Corticosteroid injections in the back
- Antidepressants or antiseizure medications for chronic pain
Physical therapy may include:
These therapies have not been proven by scientific studies to have an effect on sciatica. However, some people may find some pain relief from:
Surgery may be done to relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve. This is performed in emergency situations or if other treatments fail. Common surgical procedures are microdiscectomy and lumbar laminectomy.
Sciatica tends to happen more than one time. To help reduce your chance of sciatica:
- Use proper body movement when playing sports, exercising, or lifting heavy objects.
- Practice good posture to reduce pressure on your spine.
- Begin a safe exercise program with the advice of your doctor.
- If possible, avoid sitting or standing in one position for long periods.
- Consider job retraining if your work requires a lot of heavy lifting or sitting.
- Reviewer: Teresa Briedwell, PT, DPT
- Review Date: 12/2014 -
- Update Date: 11/26/2013 -