Introduction 

Sciatica is the name given to any sort of pain that is caused by irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve.

The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It runs from the back of your pelvis, through your buttocks, and all the way down both legs, ending at your feet.

Signs and symptoms

When the sciatic nerve is compressed or irritated, it can cause pain, numbness and a tingling sensation that radiates from your lower back and travels down one of your legs to your foot and toes.

The pain can range from being mild to very painful, and may be made worse by sneezing, coughing, or sitting for a long period of time.

Some people with sciatica may also experience muscle weakness in the affected leg.

While people with sciatica can also have general back pain, the pain associated with sciatica usually affects the buttocks and legs much more than the back.

When to see your GP

Most people find their sciatic pain goes away naturally within a few weeks, although some cases can last for a year or more. You should see your GP if your symptoms are severe or persistent, or are getting worse over time.

Your GP will usually be able to confirm a diagnosis of sciatica based on your symptoms and recommend suitable treatments. If necessary, they can refer you to a specialist for further investigation.

You should immediately call 999 for an ambulance if you experience loss of sensation between your legs and around your buttocks and/or loss of bladder or bowel control. Although it is rare, these symptoms can be a sign of a serious condition called cauda equina syndrome.

Read more about diagnosing sciatica.

What causes sciatica?

In the vast majority of cases, sciatica is caused by a herniated or "slipped" disc. This is when one of the discs that sit between the bones of the spine (the vertebrae) is damaged and presses on the nerves.

Less common causes include spinal stenosis (narrowing of the nerve passages in the spine), a spinal injury or infection, or a growth within the spine (such as a tumour).

You can minimise your risk of developing a slipped disc or back injury that could lead to sciatica by adopting a better posture and lifting techniques at work, as well as stretching before and after exercise, and exercising regularly.

Read more about the causes of sciatica and preventing sciatica.

How sciatica is treated

Many cases of sciatica will pass in around six weeks without the need for treatment.

However, a combination of things you can do at home – such as taking over-the-counter painkillers, exercising and using hot or cold packs – may help reduce the symptoms until the condition improves.

In more persistent cases, you may be advised to follow a structured exercise programme under the supervision of a physiotherapist, have injections of anti-inflammatory and painkilling medication into your spine, and/or take stronger painkiller tablets.

In rare cases, surgery may be needed to correct the problem in your spine.

Read more about treating sciatica.


Sciatica

Dr Rob Hicks explains the causes, symptoms and treatment for different types of sciatica (pain radiating from the lower back along the legs and calves).

Media last reviewed: 18/01/2013

Next review due: 18/01/2015

Page last reviewed: 26/08/2014

Next review due: 26/08/2016