Sciatica is a sharp, often shooting pain, sometimes accompanied by tingling or numbness, that extends from the buttocks down the back of one leg. Sciatica may feel like a mild ache, a sharp, burning sensation or cause extreme discomfort.
Sciatica is produced when nerve roots that lead to the sciatic nerve are irritated or compressed. The most common cause of sciatica is a bulging or ruptured disc.
Additional common causes of sciatica include:
- Lumbar spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back)
- Degenerative disc disease (breakdown of discs, which act as cushions between the vertebrae)
- Spondylolisthesis (a condition in which one vertebra slips forward over another one)
Being overweight, not exercising regularly, wearing high heels or sleeping on a mattress that is too soft can all make back pain worse.
Sciatica may produce pain that begins in your back or buttock and then moves down your leg, and perhaps into your foot. You may have burning, weakness, tingling, numbness or difficulty moving the leg or foot. Sitting or standing for a long time can make sciatica worse; walking or lying down may help relieve pain.
Sciatica usually affects only one side of the lower body. Often, the pain extends from the lower back all the way through the back of the thigh and down through the leg. Depending on where the sciatic nerve is affected, the pain may also extend to the foot or toes.
Seek immediate medical attention with any symptoms of progressive lower extremity weakness and/or loss of bladder or bowel control.
Steroid injections or acupuncture may relieve sciatica. A physical therapist who has experience with sciatica can design an appropriate exercise program. It’s important to do the exercises exactly as directed.
Several types of medications may also be used for sciatic pain:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen, aspirin, or NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen [Advil, Motrin], ketoprofen, or naproxen [Aleve])
- Prescription muscle relaxants to ease muscle spasms
- Antidepressants for chronic low back pain
- Prescription pain medications for more severe pain
If pain from sciatica persists for at least six weeks despite treatment, you may be referred to a specialist and surgery may be an option. For example, if a herniated disc is putting pressure on the nerve, surgery can correct the problem.