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Sciatica, sounds like a tongue twister. However, this is more of a symptom rather than a condition. Sciatica indicates a nerve is being ‘pinched’ somewhere along the spinal cord.

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Let us know more about this symptom by going through the paragraphs below.

What is Sciatica?

Sciatica is the pain experienced due to pinching of a large nerve called the sciatic nerve. This nerve runs from the lower back through both legs on the hind side. It helps in controlling the knee and lower leg muscles. It is also helpful in providing feeling to the back of the thigh, lower leg as well as the sole. When this nerve is pinched, injured or under pressure, it leads to pain called as sciatica.

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What are the Symptoms of Sciatica?

The main symptom of sciatica is pain. Usually one leg, buttock or one side of the lower back is affected. Other symptoms include the following:

  • Cramps in the thigh
  • Tingling or burning sensation in leg
  • Numbness in part of sole, lower leg, thigh or buttock region
  • Leg muscle weakness
  • Problems with leg movement or controlling leg
  • Severe pain when exposed to cold weather
  • The pain feels better when the patient sits down or lies down
  • Lower back pain

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  • Pain worsens when  the person stands up after sitting down
  • Sneezing or coughing worsens the pain
  • Discomfort along the lower back, buttock, thigh, calf right down to the foot of the affected side

What Causes Sciatica?

There are many causes of sciatica. It occurs due to compression of the lumbar nerves (L3, L4, L5) or the sacral nerves (S1, S2, S3). It may even occur due to pressure on the sciatic nerves.

The causes of this compression or injury to the nerve include:

Herniated Spinal Disc

When the cushioning disc between the vertebra of the spine ruptures, it leads to herniated spinal disc. Thus, the nerves are compressed by the discs leading to pain, weakness and numbness in the affected part.

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Spinal Stenosis:

Narrowing of the spinal canal leads to pressure on the nerves leading to sciatica. Read more about Spinal stenosis


Slipping of the one vertebra out of line from the other vertebra leads to spondylolisthesis. This causes the opening of the vertebrae to become narrow causing compression of the nerves passing through it.

Piriformis Syndrome:

A small muscle in the buttocks becomes tight and leads to compression of the sciatic nerve.

Other causes of sciatica include obesity, exercising aggressively, pregnancy, sleeping in an uncomfortable position, wearing high heels for very long periods, etc.

Who are at Risk of Developing Sciatica?

Age is the main factor when it comes to risk. With age, the discs between the vertebra degenerate leading to sciatica. It is seen usually people in the age group of 30-50 years often complain of sciatica. Other than that, prolonged sitting, carrying heavy loads or driving motor cars for long periods can lead to sciatica. People who are obese or suffer from diabetes too complain of sciatica.

How is Sciatica Diagnosed?

Physical examination, medical history of the patient as well as the symptoms stated by the patient help the doctor doubt sciatica. For conformation, the doctor may carry out certain tests, these include:

  • Straight leg rising test: Patient is asked to raise his/her leg. If pain is experienced, it may indicate sciatica.
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan

How is Sciatica Treated?

The pain usually subsides on its own. However, the doctor may prescribe some drugs to help ease the pain and for quick recovery. These medications include anti-inflammatories or muscle relaxers.

Exercises and physical therapy also prove to be very useful in some patients. Apart from this, patients are advised ice packs to help soothe the aching muscles.

Epidural steroid injections are given to some patients around the nerve root region. In extreme cases, where the bone pinches the nerve such that it leads to severe pain, urinary incontinence, bowel weakness and other problems, surgery may be advised. This surgery helps in removal of the degenerated disc or aligning the vertebra that are pinching the nerves.

Sciatica has a 90% rate of full recovery without the need for surgery. Thus, within 3 weeks to about 4 months, one may become free from sciatica pain. However, if one starts developing progressive leg weakness or cauda equine syndrome, they may require immediate medical attention. Thus, any pain experienced in one of your legs, buttock or one side of the lower back region, do consult a doctor for proper diagnosis and immediate treatment.

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Written by: Batula nafisa
Date last updated: February 4, 2015

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