Sciatica: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Updated on September 10, 2019

Sciatica is a condition resulting from irritation of the sciatic nerve. This nerve is the widest and longest nerve in the body, running from the lower back through the back of the leg, and down to the toes. It stimulates the movement of leg muscles, carries sensory signals from the leg to the spine, and supplies sensation to the skin of the foot.

When the sciatic nerve is irritated, it causes pain which can be mild or severe. Most commonly, sciatica results from a compressed nerve in the lower parts of the spine or a herniated (slipped) disk. However, sciatica shouldn’t be confused with back pain because it isn’t limited to this part of the body.

Sciatica is usually a symptom of some sort of a problem connected to the sciatic nerve and is a very common condition– it is estimated that about 40% of adults will suffer from sciatica at some point in their lives.

Common Sciatica Symptoms

The most common symptom of sciatica is an intense, shooting pain at any point of the sciatic nerve: the lower back, buttocks, or one of the legs. The pain can range from severe to mild but might worsen if the person sits for longer periods of time.

Other sciatica symptoms are tingling sensation in the toes and feet, as well as numbness in the legs.

What Causes Sciatica

Sciatica can be a symptom of a number of medical conditions, but the most common cause (in 90% of cases) is a slipped (herniated) disk. The cartilage in the disks is quite resilient and strong material which makes the spine flexible. When a disk is herniated or displaced, it compresses the sciatic nerve.

Sciatica can also be caused by:

  • Spondylolisthesis – a slipping of the vertebra (small bones forming the backbone) that usually occurs at the base of the spine.
  • Lumbar spinal stenosis – a narrowing of the spinal canal which puts pressure on the nerves in the legs and on the lower back.
  • Cauda equina syndrome (CES) is a rare condition that occurs when the nerves below the spinal cord are damaged.
  • Some infections and injuries can also affect the spine and cause sciatica.
  • Spine tumors may compress the sciatic nerve’s root.

Common Risk Factors for Sciatica

The most common risk factors are:

  • Age – people in their 40s are more likely to develop sciatica.
  • A sedentary lifestyle and sedentary jobs – people who are not physically active and sit for longer periods of time are at a higher risk of developing sciatica.
  • Pregnancy.

Standard Sciatica Treatments

Standard treatments for sciatica include:

  • Physical therapy
  • CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) to help patients manage pain by training them to react differently
  • Over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen. However, bear in mind that certain painkillers may not work in some individuals. Make sure to consult with your doctor before using any type of painkillers.  
  • Physical activity like stretching or walking.
  • Cold or hot compressions to help reduce pain.

Surgical intervention is also an option in case other treatments have failed. Surgical treatments include discectomy, where the herniated (slipped) disk is removed partially or entirely, and decompression surgery, also known as laminectomy, where the spinal canal is enlarged to reduce pressure on the nerves and spinal cord.


In most cases of sciatica pain, a controlled, customized exercise program is usually a part of the recommended treatment. Standard exercises for sciatica have a purpose to reduce the pain caused by sciatica but also to help prevent recurrence of the pain in the future.

Without movement and exercise, the spinal structure and back muscles lose their ability to effectively support the back. This can result in back strain and injury, which causes additional pain. Physical activity also helps exchange fluids and nutrients within the spinal discs to keep them healthy and prevent pressure on the sciatic nerve.

A chiropractor, physical therapist, certified athletic trainer, physiatrist, or another spine specialist can prescribe specific exercises and teach you how to do them.

Diagnosis of Sciatica

If the sciatica symptoms aren’t too severe and don’t persist for more than eight weeks, there’s no need for medical attention.

If the pain is persistent and lasts longer than eight weeks, MRI or X-ray may be needed to help determine what is putting pressure on the sciatic nerve. The doctor will probably inquire about the patient’s medical history and ask them to perform a few basic exercises to see if there will be any pain during the process.

Can Sciatica Be Prevented?

In most cases, sciatica will go away on its own in about six weeks.

Sciatica can be prevented by introducing some lifestyle changes like doing exercises regularly, and making sure your posture is proper when sitting, standing, and lifting heavy objects.


Source: Online Mattress Review

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