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Knowing the Facts About Sciatica

The term sciatica refers to radiating pain along the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve branches out from your lower back, through your hips and buttocks, and then down each leg.

What causes sciatica?

Sciatica is most commonly caused by a herniated disk, bone spur or a narrowing of the spine that compresses or pinches the sciatic nerve.  The sciatic nerve can also be damaged by diabetes.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of sciatica are inflammation, pain, or numbness. Pain often radiates from the lower back or buttock, into the back of the thigh or calf. Extreme cases involve severe pain, and even significant muscle weakness and incontinence. Usually only one side of the body is affected.

When to see a doctor

Most cases of sciatic are mild and resolve within a few weeks. Home treatments are often effective. However, if you experience pain for more than a week, if the pain is severe, or if it progressively worsens, contact your primary care physician. Sciatica can cause permanent nerve damage. Seek immediate medical attention if you have sudden severe pain, numbness or muscle weakness, or if you lose control of your bowels or bladder.

What are the risk factors?

  • Age-related changes in the spine, such as bone spurs
  • Obesity, which increases pressure on the spine
  • An occupation that involves:
    •  Twisting
    •  lifting or carrying heavy objects
    • Driving for extended periods
    • Prolonged sitting
    •  Sedentary lifestyle
    • Diabetes

Preparing for a doctor’s visit

Bring a list of all your symptoms, and when they began. List your medical history, including other conditions and injuries, as well as all medication and supplements that you take. Ask your physician the following questions:

  • Do I need diagnostic tests?
  • What treatment do you recommend?
  • What are the possible side effects of any medication that may be prescribed?
  • How long will you need to take any medication prescribed?
  • Are you a candidate for surgery?
  • Are there any restrictions that you need to be aware of?
  • What home treatments should you begin?
  • What can you do to prevent a relapse?


Your doctor will likely conduct a physical exam to check your muscle strength and reflexes. He or she may also conduct imaging tests such as x-rays, MRIs, CT scans or electromyography to look for herniated discs, bone spurs, to image the spine itself, or to test the electrical impulses in your nerves and muscles.


Treatments include:

  • Physical therapy to correct your posture, improve flexibility and strengthen muscles
  • Steroid injections to reduce inflammation
  • Surgery to remove bone spurs or portions of a herniated disc

Home treatment

Effective home treatments include:

  • Cold packs or heating pads applied to painful areas for no more than 20 minutes, several times a day
  • Stretching to relieve compression


  • Exercise regularly to keep your back and core muscles strong
  • Maintain good posture when sitting

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Used under Creative Commons Licensing courtesy of Frank Schmidtke

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