Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center - Health Library

Sciatica

Definition

Sciatica is an irritation of the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve leave the spine in the low back. There is one on the left and one on the right. The nerve travels deep into the pelvis to the lower buttocks. From there, it passes down the back of each thigh. Then the nerve divides at the knee into branches that go to the feet.

Sciatic Nerve Pain
Sciatica Nerve Pain

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Causes  ^

Sciatica is caused by pressure on the nerve. This can be the result of:

  • Herniated disc—the cushions between the bones of your spine bulge and press on the nerve as it exits the spinal column
  • Arthritis of the back—swelling in joints of the lower back
  • Spinal stenosis—narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back
  • 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 deep in the pelvis/hip

Risk Factors  ^

Factors that may increase your chance of sciatica include:

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

Other health conditions, such as:

  • Fractures in the back
  • Tumors
  • Infections
  • Metabolic problems, such as diabetes

Symptoms  ^

Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Symptoms may include:

  • Burning, tingling, or a shooting pain down the back of one leg
  • Pain in one leg or buttock may get worse with:
    • Sitting
    • Standing up
    • Coughing
    • Sneezing
    • Straining
  • 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

Diagnosis  ^

You will be asked about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor will pay close 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.

Treatment  ^

The goal of treatment is to reduce sciatic nerve irritation.

Treatment options include:

Activity

Bed rest is not often recommended. It does not seem to help healing. In fact, it may make your recovery longer.

If you have severe pain, bed rest may be suggested but for no more than 1-2 days. Activities may be restricted for a short period of time. It should then be resumed as soon as possible. Recovery time may be shortened by staying active and exercising. Avoid activities that make the pain worse.

Medication

Medications used to treat sciatica include:

  • Over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers
  • Muscle relaxants for muscle spasms
  • Corticosteroid injections in the back
  • Antidepressants or antiseizure medications for chronic pain

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy may include:

  • Cold packs or heat therapy
  • Stretching and strengthening exercises
  • Massage
  • Ultrasound treatments or electrical stimulation
  • Posture education and appropriate lifting instructions

Alternative Therapies

Some people may find some pain relief from:

Surgery

Surgery may be needed. It can help to relieve pressure on the nerve. It is the last resort, if other treatment has not worked. It may also be needed if there are urgent symptoms. Common surgical procedures include:

  • Microdiscectomy—part of disc between spinal bones is removed
  • Lumbar laminectomy—part of spinal bone is removed

Prevention  ^

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.
RESOURCES:

North American Spine Society
http://www.spine.org

Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
http://www.orthoinfo.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Orthopaedic Association
http://www.coa-aco.org

Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation
http://www.canorth.org

REFERENCES:

Allen C, Glasziou P, et al. Bed rest: A potentially harmful treatment needing more careful evaluation. Lancet. 1999; 354:1229-1233.

Sciatica. Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00351. Updated December 2013. Accessed November 15, 2017.

Sciatica. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115166/Sciatica. Updated May 8, 2017. Accessed November 13, 2017.

Waddell G, Feder G, Lewis M. Systematic reviews of bed rest and advice to stay active for acute low back pain. Br J Gen Pract. 1997;47:647-652.

6/7/2007 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillancehttp://www.dynamed.com: Peul WC, van Houwelingen HC, et al. Surgery versus prolonged conservative treatment for sciatica. N Engl J Med. 2007;356:2245-2256.

Last reviewed May 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Teresa Briedwell, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS  Last Updated: 7/17/2018