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What is sciatica?

Sciatica is the term used to describe pain, weakness, or numbness that occurs in the sciatic nerve, which is the nerve that originates in the lower spine and runs through the pelvis, down the back of each leg to the feet.

Sciatica is a symptom of an underlying condition rather than a diagnosis. Sciatica may also be called lumbar radiculopathy.

What causes sciatica?

The sciatic nerve is the longest and largest nerve in our body. It originates from the lower spine, branches into the pelvis, and then travels through the buttock down each leg.

There are many causes of sciatica, but the most common causes are conditions that put pressure or irritate lumbar nerve roots located between L4 and S1.

Causes of sciatica include:

  • Herniated discs (slipped disc)
  • Degeneration
  • Heavy lifting
  • Infection
  • Injury to the lower back
  • Muscle spasms
  • Pelvic fractures
  • Stenosis
  • Strenuous exercise
  • Cancer.

The risk of developing sciatica is increased in people who:

  • Are older
  • Are pregnant
  • Have a job that involves twisting of the back or carrying heavy loads
  • Sit for long periods
  • Smoke.

What are the symptoms of sciatica?

  • Pain, numbness, or weakness that radiates from the lower back to the buttocks and leg
  • Typically, only felt on one side of the body, such as one leg. Rarely both legs may be affected
  • Symptoms may involve the back or front of the thigh, leg, buttocks or foot
  • Pain is searing and sharp, shooting, or a constant burning sensation rather than achy or throbbing
  • Sometimes tingling or weakness present or a feeling of heaviness
  • Symptoms may worsen depending on posture, for example, sitting down, standing down, bending forward, twisting, lying down, or while coughing
  • Symptoms may be relieved by walking or a heat pack.
  • Posture induced symptoms. Sciatica symptoms may feel worse while sitting, trying to stand up, bending the spine forward, twisting the spine, lying down, and/or while coughing. The symptoms may be relieved by walking or applying a heat pack over the rear pelvic region.

How is sciatica diagnosed?

See your doctor if you are experiencing sciatica. Not all lower back pain or radiating leg pain is sciatica and your doctor will conduct a physical examination and take an x-ray or order another type of imaging study to determine if your pain is due to sciatica.

Pain that lasts for less than 8 weeks is called acute sciatica. Chronic sciatica lasts for longer than 8 weeks.

How is sciatica treated?

Treatment depends on the cause but may include:

  • Physical therapy and exercises
  • Medications
  • Spinal injections
  • Surgery.