Everything You Need to Know About Sciatica

Medically reviewed by
 Dr. John Renger

Dr. John Renger

Dr. Renger joined Cerevel Therapeutics as Chief Scientific Officer in 2019 after leaving Imbrium Therapeutics L.P., where he served as vice president of research and development and regulatory affairs, leading…

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The sciatic nerve is the largest and longest nerve in the body, running from the lower back down through the leg all the way to the heel. There is one…

Last Updated On August 20th, 2022
Everything You Need to Know About Sciatica

The sciatic nerve is the largest and longest nerve in the body, running from the lower back down through the leg all the way to the heel. There is one sciatic nerve on each side of the body, and when it becomes compressed, inflamed, or irritated, it can lead to significant pain and discomfort.

Sciatica refers to a cluster of symptoms and is associated with the location of where one is experiencing pain. It is not an uncommon experience, especially in those between the ages of 30 to 50 years old. In fact, Cleveland Clinic Verified Source Cleveland Clinic Ranked #2 hospital by U.S. News & World Report and one of the largest academic medical centers in America. The Cleveland Clinic serves patients from all over the world. View source states that about 40 percent of adults in the United States will struggle with sciatica in their lifetime, and the symptoms may range from sensations of sharp shooting pain to numbness or tingling sensation in the legs and feet. Thankfully, there are many ways to help ease this discomfort.

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“Unfortunately, as we age we start to find out that our lifestyle habits can start to catch up with us,” said Dr. John Renger, Ph.D. “Some forms of pain we experience after we get into our 3rd decade and later in life are associated with our posture, fitness level, and our ability to recover after muscle and joint trauma.”

“One of those classes of pain is sciatica. For those that have sciatic nerve compression issues in their back which result from poor posture, or those with ongoing inflammation due to muscle and joint swelling that causes pressure on the sciatic nerve after strain, it can be extremely impactful to their quality of life. It is very important to first seek the correct diagnosis from their physician and subsequently finding appropriate remediation of symptoms becomes a central focus to get their lives back through being fully functional as soon as possible while they can remediate the cause of the pain.”   

In this article, we will explain important features you need to know about sciatica; its most common causes, what the symptoms are that you may experience, ways you can prevent the pain from recurring, and some of the currently available treatment options.

Causes of Sciatica

Sciatica can stem from various conditions ranging from disc herniation to wear-and-tear of the spine, inflammation of tissue near the sciatic nerve, and diabetes. These are the most prevalent reasons behind sciatic pain:

Herniated Disc

A herniated disc Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source is the most prevalent reason for sciatica. It occurs when a spinal disc bulges out and presses on the sciatic nerve, causing pain. In some cases, the soft material within the disc will leak out and inflame the nerves’ roots.

Injury

Injuries of all shapes and sizes may lead to sciatica. Car accidents, falls, heavy lifting, and even activities involving twisting motions—such as golf, tennis, and/or football—can cause injury. Trauma to the leg or back may also result in sciatic pain due to compression or damage of the nerve.

Age-Related Changes

The spine naturally changes over time. Discs dry out, the cartilage wears down, and joints get stiffer with age. Conditions such as osteoarthritis, Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source spinal stenosis, Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source and disc degeneration Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source all leave the sciatic nerve roots vulnerable; in return, they are more prone to being compressed or irritated, leading to pain.

Pregnancy

Many women suffer from sciatic pain during pregnancy. This may be because of weight gain, an increase in fluid retention, or the baby resting directly on the sciatic nerve. Fortunately, for most mothers-to-be, this is temporary and symptoms are likely to go away within a few months of giving birth.

Poor Posture

Sitting or standing with poor posture for long periods places a lot of stress and fatigue on the lower back, sometimes to the point of irritating the sciatic nerve roots. To reduce the likelihood of this happening, check in with yourself several times throughout the day and ensure you’re sitting up straight and not hunched over.

Diabetes

Having diabetes Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source can increase the chances that you may experience sciatica.  Nerve damage related to poorly controlled diabetes Verified Source Cleveland Clinic Ranked #2 hospital by U.S. News & World Report and one of the largest academic medical centers in America. The Cleveland Clinic serves patients from all over the world. View source may increase the risk of experiencing sciatica due to nerve damage incurred by poor blood sugar control.

Piriformis Syndrome

Piriformis Syndrome Verified Source Medline Plus Online resource offered by the National Library of Medicine and part of the National Institutes of Health. View source is a neuromuscular disorder where the Piriformis muscle compresses the sciatic nerve; this leads to pain, tingling, or numbness. The sciatica is usually caused by overuse or injury of the muscle, and symptoms are most often present in the hips and legs.

Sciatica Symptoms

Individuals may experience the symptoms of sciatica differently. Typically, discomfort only affects one side of the body and this can cause one leg or side of the body to feel heavier than the other.

The most common symptoms of sciatica include a sudden shooting pain or persistent burning sensation in the lower back, buttocks, leg, and/or feet, along the pathway of the sciatic nerve.

In severe cases, tingling, weakness, and/or numbness in the back of the leg may occur. Unfortunately, some people have reported bilateral symptoms on both sides of the body, too. If you do experience any of these symptoms, it is important to see a healthcare professional as soon as possible, as this may indicate a more serious health condition.

Treatment Options

There are various treatment modalities available to help cope with the discomfort and manage sciatica pain. Below, we outline a few steps you can take to feel some relief.

It’s important to note, some treatment options may not be considered safe during pregnancy. If you are an expectant mother, we recommend speaking with your doctor about how to safely find relief from sciatic pain without exposing your unborn baby to risk.

Exercise

Moving the body may help to reduce inflammation and decrease pressure on the sciatic nerve. Low impact and aerobic exercises such as swimming, walking, cycling, dancing can be ideal for those with sciatica because they reduce impact and further injury while reducing inflammatory responses through increasing blood circulation. Exercise can also improve sleep.

Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are widely used pain relievers to alleviate discomfort. We recommend asking your physician or trusted pharmacist about the best options for you based on your specific health status.

Heat Therapy

Applying a heat pack to the pelvic and/or lumbar area reduces stiffness and increases oxygen flow to the muscles through relaxation of muscles and increasing blood circulation, supporting the body’s natural healing process.

Stretching

Maintaining the back’s flexibility and mobility through stretching can prevent muscle and joint stiffness. Instead of being sedentary, continue stretching your leg(s) and back to keep the sciatic nerve and nearby muscles and joints moving. Ask your physician what types of stretches are suitable for you and your fitness level.

Massage

For targeted relief, massages may provide a relaxing option. Deep muscle massages promote relaxation and get the blood flowing to the affected area to potentially reduce inflammation, and reduce pressure on the sciatic nerve. Be sure to inform your masseuse about your symptoms beforehand so they can treat you accordingly and prevent further aggravation of the sciatic nerve.

Physical Therapy

Some individuals may go to a trained physical therapist to treat their sciatica. These medical professionals can help restore function in the back and legs by developing stretches and exercise routines to aid in rehabilitation and recovery.

Surgery

In the event of disc herniation causing sciatica symptoms, surgery may be required to relieve pressure on the nerve and restore normal function.

How to Prevent Sciatica

Sciatica

Those who have been affected by sciatica may be wondering what they can do to prevent the pain from returning in the future. Here are a few preventative measures to consider in order to protect the back and/or legs to reduce the chance of causing future issues that can be associated with sciatica:

Exercise Regularly

Working out consistently can help prevent sciatica by strengthening the muscles that support the spine and potentially reduce the chances for compression of the sciatic nerve. Strengthening your core through abdominal exercises may be particularly helpful. When this muscle group is weak, it may make you more prone to sciatica through poor posture.

As we mentioned previously, regular exercise can bolster sleep quality, too.

Drink Sufficient Amounts of Water

The spinal discs are filled with fluid, so when we don’t drink enough water, they can become dehydrated. Consuming plenty of water helps keep the back functioning as effectively as it can.  Additionally, muscle cramping and inflammation can result from insufficient water intake that may lead to scenarios that lead to suffering sciatica symptoms.

Maintain Proper Posture

While sitting, pull the shoulders down and back. If you work at a desk, take frequent breaks throughout the day to allow your back muscles, leg muscles, and ligaments to stretch and move to prevent compression and inflammation issues.

Practice Good Body Mechanics

The way we move our bodies while standing and lifting is important. Take special care while making twisting motions or playing impact sports. When lifting, always bend at your hips and knees—never your waist. Wearing non-slip, closed-toe shoes with arch support can also help by supporting natural body alignment and preventing joint and muscle strain and tears.

When to See a Doctor

Scenarios that warrant a visit to the doctor and call for special treatment include but are not limited to:

  • Neurological symptoms that become progressively worse with time, such as numbness, tingling, or weakness
  • Pain, numbness, or tingling symptoms present in one or both of the legs, back or buttocks
  • Bowel or bladder dysfunction
  • Pain accompanied by a fever or loss of appetite
  • Sciatica symptoms starting after a fall, trauma, or injury

FAQs

How is sciatica diagnosed?

A physical exam is usually required to diagnose sciatica. During this examination, a healthcare provider assesses your muscle strength and reflexes. Those experiencing severe or chronic pain may be referred to a spine specialist, and they will conduct imaging tests such as MRIs, X-rays, or CT scans to determine the cause of your discomfort and treat it accordingly.

To best assist your physician in making a proper diagnosis, it may be helpful to keep track of your symptoms, activities, and pain levels in a journal and take your notes to the appointment.

How long does sciatica last?

Pain duration varies from person to person. After seeking treatment, most people will stop experiencing symptoms within 4 to 6 weeks. In more serious cases, the pain may last up to 1 year.

What triggers sciatica?

Inflammation, compression, or damage to the body’s sciatic nerve are some of the common causes of sciatica. When irritated, pain, discomfort, numbness, and/or tingling can occur. Common triggers of sciatic pain may include improper lifting, sitting with poor posture, or a sedentary lifestyle.

Can sciatica be cured?

Sciatica is treatable, but not curable. There are several effective ways to manage the symptoms and prevent recurring episodes of pain, including physical therapy and targeted stretching. However, most people can kick their pain with lifestyle modifications and avoid complex treatments.  In some cases, surgical interventions may need to be employed to achieve the best treatment outcome for specific patients.

How do I relieve sciatic nerve pain?

Hot packs, massage, and/or over-the-counter pain relievers are effective ways to alleviate sciatic nerve pain due to inflammation-induced symptoms. We suggest considering using a range of methods to see which one works best for you, but it is always critically important to start by consulting your physician for appropriate diagnosis and recommended options that you should discuss with your care provider.

Whenever pain is interfering with your daily lifestyle, it is time to seek medical attention and work with a healthcare provider to create a treatment plan for your specific needs. Pain is the body’s signal that something is wrong and should never be ignored.

Conclusion

Sciatica can be very painful; however, for many people, it will subside over time with a little the appropriate treatment and recovery time.

By exercising regularly, drinking sufficient amounts of water, and practicing good posture, you may greatly reduce the chances of sciatica symptoms returning depending on the origin of the pain. If you do begin to experience symptoms, we suggest staying active, stretching out the lower back and legs, and using hot compresses on the affected area, but always working closely with your care provider to ensure you achieve the appropriate diagnosis and treatment is critically important. The approaches described here may help relieve discomfort until the sciatic nerve returns to a more healthy, and eventually normal state.


About the author

Mitchell Tollsen is a graduate student and a freelance writer who’s contributed to the Early Bird blog for three years. Mitchell’s always been fascinated by the science of sleep and the restorative processes our bodies undergo when at rest. The self-titled “Sleep Expert” is always looking for ways to improve his shut-eye, and throughout the years has implemented numerous lifestyle changes and tried dozens of sleep-promoting gadgets to determine the best ways to truly get better rest.

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