Sciatica is pain from irritation of the sciatic nerve. It can also cause symptoms such as numbness and tingling. Treatments can include pain relief medication, exercises, physical therapy, and more.

Sciatica may be the result of a compressed nerve in the lower spine but can cause symptoms throughout the back and legs.

Sciatica is not a condition, but rather a symptom of another problem involving the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in the human body. It runs from the lower back, through the buttocks, and down the legs, ending just below the knee.

This nerve controls several muscles in the lower legs and supplies sensation to the skin of the foot and the majority of the lower leg.

Read on to learn about the symptoms and causes of sciatica. This article also looks at treatment options, how doctors diagnose sciatica, and more.

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One of the main symptoms of sciatica is pain anywhere along the sciatic nerve. This can range from the lower back, through the buttock, to down the back of either leg.

The pain may feel:

  • shooting
  • burning
  • stabbing

Other symptoms of sciatica include:

  • tingling
  • numbness
  • weakness

This pain can range in severity and may worsen when moving.

The most common cause of sciatica is a herniated or bulging disk. Three main components of the spinal column are:

  • vertebra (individual bones in the spine that protect underlying nerves)
  • nerves
  • disks

Disks are made of cartilage, which is a strong and resilient material. The cartilage acts as a cushion between each vertebra and allows the spine to be flexible. A herniated disk occurs when a disk is pushed out of place. It can put pressure on one or several of the spinal nerves that form the sciatic nerve.

Other causes of sciatica include:

  • lumbar spinal stenosis, which is the narrowing of the spinal cord in the lower back
  • cauda equina syndrome, a rare and serious type of spinal stenosis
  • spondylolisthesis, a condition where a disk slips forward over the vertebra below it
  • injury to the back
  • general wear and tear

Risk factors for sciatic nerve pain

Common risk factors for sciatica include:

  • Age: Sciatica is more common between the ages of 30 and 50 years.
  • Profession: Sciatica may be more likely to develop if a person regularly performs tasks that require lifting heavy loads for long periods.
  • History of lower back pain: Having a history of back pain or problems with the back may increase a person’s risk of sciatica.

To assist with reaching an accurate diagnosis a doctor may begin by performing a physical examination, taking a full medical history, and asking a person about their symptoms.

Doctors may also ask the individual to perform basic maneuvers that stretch the sciatic nerve. Shooting pain down the leg while performing these maneuvers can indicate sciatica.

If pain persists for more than 6–8 weeks, imaging tests such as an X-ray or MRI may be necessary to help identify what is compressing the sciatic nerve and causing the symptoms.

Treatment for sciatica can depend on the severity of the condition. In some cases, sciatica will improve on its own within 4–6 weeks without intervention. However, various treatments may help speed up recovery and alleviate pain.

Home remedies

Home remedies a doctor may recommend include:

  • applying an ice pack to the area for the first 1–2 days when pain first begins
  • applying a heat pack to the area if pain persists longer than 2 days
  • placing a pillow between bent knees for side sleepers or under bent knees for back sleepers


Medications a doctor may recommend include:

  • gabapentin, which targets nerve pain
  • muscle relaxants
  • anticonvulsant drugs
  • corticosteroid injections for persistent sciatica


There are many ways to relieve the pressure on the sciatic nerve through exercise. This can help with alleviating symptoms and finding longer-term comfort and relief during flare-ups.

A physical therapist can help a person learn and perform exercises that are safe and beneficial for sciatica. They may encourage the individual to walk around when possible, while avoiding movements such as twisting and bending.

Learn about sciatica stretches for pain relief.


Around 80–90% of people with sciatica will not require surgery. However, surgery may be an option if symptoms have not responded to other treatments.

Surgical options for sciatica include lumbar laminectomy and discectomy. Lumbar laminectomy is the partial or complete removal of the lamina (part of the vertebrae) from the lumbar spine in order to relieve compression on the spinal nerves. Discectomy is the partial or entire removal of a herniated disk.

Depending on the cause of sciatica, a surgeon will go over the risks and benefits of surgery and be able to suggest a suitable surgical option.

In most cases, sciatica will go away on its own within 4–6 weeks.

If symptoms do not improve within this time, a doctor may order scans to determine the underlying cause. In some cases, surgery may be necessary.

Several lifestyle modifications may help prevent sciatica. These include:

  • getting enough regular physical activity
  • maintaining proper posture
  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • avoiding smoking
  • performing heavy lifting with proper techniques

A person’s doctor can provide more advice on ways to reduce the chance of sciatica.

Below are some common questions about sciatica.

How long does sciatica last?

Most cases of sciatica improve within 4–6 weeks.

Learn more about how long sciatica lasts.

How does someone get sciatica to go away?

Sciatica may go away on its own. Various remedies can help encourage recovery, including hot and cold therapy and using supportive pillows while sleeping. Pain relief medication can also help manage pain.

What triggers sciatica?

Sciatica symptoms may occur if someone has a condition that compresses or puts pressure on the sciatic nerve, such as a disk herniation, arthritis, or bone spurs.

What relaxes the sciatic nerve?

Nerves cannot tense or relax because they do not contract. However, nerves can become irritated.

Time and rest usually calm sciatica nerve irritation. People may benefit from heat or cold compression pads and gentle stretching exercises.

What should someone not do with sciatica?

Sciatica pain and other symptoms may worsen if someone bends, twists, or coughs. Staying in bed may also contribute to discomfort, so people should incorporate gentle stretches into their daily routine.

How can I tell if my pain is sciatica?

Sciatica can cause shooting, burning, or stabbing pain. It can affect the back of the legs, the lower back, and the buttocks.

What is the straight leg test for sciatica?

The straight leg test for sciatica involves the individual lying down while the medical professional raises their leg by flexing the hip. If the individual experiences pain along the lower limb while their knee is in extension, this can indicate sciatica.

Sciatica refers to pain caused by a problem with the sciatic nerve. It most commonly happens as a result of a herniated or bulging disk. Other causes include spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis, and a back injury.

Most cases of sciatica improve within 4–6 weeks. Treatment may not be necessary, but a doctor may recommend various remedies to encourage healing and manage pain. These include pain relief medication, hot and cold therapy, and physical therapy. Surgery may be necessary to address the underlying cause.

It is best for a person to contact their doctor if they have concerns about sciatica. The doctor can perform an examination to help confirm the diagnosis and advise on a suitable treatment plan.

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