What is sciatica nerve pain?

Sciatica nerve pain can flare up due to carrying extra weight and bad posture.
Sciatica nerve pain can flare up due to carrying extra weight and bad posture.

Sciatica is a medical condition where an individual feels pain radiating from the sciatic nerve. This nerve begins in the lumbar spine (lower back) and runs down to the legs. The sciatic nerve is the largest in the body and can reach up to 2 centimeters in diameter.

It’s responsible for providing motor function to lower parts of the body like the hamstrings, lower leg muscles, and some foot muscles. Pressure on this nerve can cause you to experience sciatica.

Signs and symptoms of sciatic nerve pain

People with sciatica often experience the following symptoms:

  • Pain that spreads from the pelvis to the back of the thigh
  • Pain that runs down from the pelvis to the foot
  • Feeling of numbness in the pelvis
  • Weakness in the affected leg

You may want to visit a doctor if these symptoms persist for an extended period. Only a medical professional can provide a diagnosis and treatment plan to help with sciatic nerve pain.

Causes of sciatic nerve pain

Sciatica can be caused by any issue that compresses the sciatic nerve. Many people experience sciatic nerve pain because of a bulging or herniated disc. Spinal stenosis, where the spinal column gets narrower because of aging, can also cause sciatica.

Other conditions that can lead to sciatic nerve pain include:

Without relief, sciatica can lead to serious health complications because of the pressure on your sciatic nerve. Some of the issues that could arise include:

  • Ending up with a slipped or herniated disc
  • Increasing levels of pain
  • Losing control of your bowels or bladder
  • Losing feeling in the leg affected by sciatic nerve pain
  • Irreversible nerve damage

Risk factors for sciatica

Sciatica appears to affect men and women equally. The condition often starts in individuals after they turn 40. Height only seems to make a difference in the level of sciatic nerve pain experienced in people between the ages of 50 and 60. It’s uncommon for individuals 20 and younger to develop sciatica outside of a traumatic event.

There does appear to be an occupational tie to the condition. People who work as machine operators or truck drivers or in other jobs that place them in awkward positions for extended periods may be more prone to developing sciatica.

When to see the doctor for sciatic nerve pain

You should consult a doctor about your sciatic nerve pain if:

  • Your pain keeps getting worse
  • You find yourself losing feeling in your leg
  • You have problems controlling your bowels and bladder
  • Your sciatic pain comes back after initial treatment

Diagnosis/tests for sciatic nerve pain

A doctor typically starts by asking questions about your medical history and your symptoms. From there, they conduct a physical examination that includes directing you to assume various positions like:

  • Squatting
  • Walking on your heels and toes
  • Raising your leg straight in front of you

Your doctor may order additional imaging to help locate the source of your sciatic nerve pain, including:

Treatments for sciatic nerve pain

About 90% of people with sciatica will heal over time without further medical intervention. Many cases of sciatica resolve within four to six weeks. Some home remedies that can help with your discomfort include:

  • Applying hot or cold packs to help relieve any inflammation
  • Learning to use correct posture when sitting, standing, or walking
  • Lightly stretching your hamstrings and lumbar spine
  • Avoiding any activities that could aggravate your sciatic nerve pain
  • Learning to lift objects correctly
  • Light exercising like walking or swimming

If these don’t help and your pain continues, a doctor can confirm the source of your sciatic nerve pain and develop a treatment plan based on your condition's severity. Your doctor may recommend that you take an anti-inflammatory medication for pain relief. Muscle relaxants can also help alleviate the pain caused by sciatica.

An epidural injection may also help in cases of extreme pain from the pressure on your sciatic nerve.

If the pain continues for more than three months, you may be a candidate for surgery. If your sciatic nerve pain results from pressure from a herniated disc or a tumor, removing it could relieve your discomfort. You may need to complete a period of rehab to regain your full range of motion.

There are no guarantees when it comes to surgical outcomes for sciatica. If you have surgery to repair a ruptured disc, it may rupture again in the future, causing the sciatic nerve pain to return.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/5/2021
References
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Sciatica."

Cleveland Clinic: "Sciatica: Diagnosis and Tests."

Harvard Health: "Sciatica home remedies and self-care."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Sciatica."

Mayo Clinic: "Sciatica."

MedlinePlus: "Sciatica."

StatPearls: "Sciatica."

RadiologyInfo.org: "Epidural Injections."