Updated Oct. 10, 2019
Sciatica refers to pain caused by inflammation or compression of the sciatic nerve, the largest nerve in the body. The nerve starts in the lumbosacral plexus in the lower back portion of the spinal cord and runs down, through the buttock, the back of the leg, and into the foot. Herniated discs or other degenerative back conditions, piriformis syndrome, and tumors can compress the nerve, leading to sciatica.
Pain from sciatica can feel like electricity shooting down the back of your leg, even into the foot or toes. Some people have numbness or tingling, while others experience sciatica as dull pain or a burning sensation. Coughing, sneezing, and laughing may make the pain more intense.
Your lower back or leg pain may not be linked to sciatica. See your doctor to find out the reason for your pain.
Symptoms of Sciatica Pain
Sciatica pain can start in the lower back and radiate downward, into your leg and foot or toes. The radiating pain can help distinguish sciatica from other lower back pain.
Common symptoms of sciatica include:
- Varying pain ranging from dull to sharp
- “Electric shock” feeling
- Numbness (“pins and needles”)
- Burning or tingling sensation
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What Causes Sciatica Pain?
Many different factors can cause sciatica pain, from medical conditions to environmental and lifestyle causes:
- Ruptured disc
- Piriformis syndrome
- Spinal stenosis
- Injuries such as pelvic fractures and spinal injuries
- Lyme Disease
- Sitting for long periods of time
- Carrying heavy loads
“It is important to learn the cause of your sciatica, because different causes will lead to different treatment options,” says Matt El-Kadi, MD, PhD, director of the UPMC Passavant Spine Center. “The first step is to see a doctor for an examination.
Risk Factors for Sciatica Pain
Risk factors for sciatic pain include:
- Age: The wear and tear of aging can increase your risk.
- Obesity: Extra weight can put extra pressure on your spine, which can lead to sciatica.
- Smoking: Studies have linked cigarette use to lumbar pain, including sciatica.
- Diabetes: Diabetes has been linked with musculoskeletal conditions, including sciatica.
- Stress: Psychological conditions such as stress have been found to cause physical conditions, including sciatica.
- Sedentary lifestyle: People who drive a vehicle or sit at a desk for most of the day are at risk.
- Driving: In addition to sitting for long periods of time, the vibration of the vehicle can cause problems.
- Physical exertion: Lifting heavy loads, such as at work or in the gym, can increase your risk of developing sciatic pain.
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Sciatica Pain Prevention
Because several causes of sciatic pain are behavioral, making some changes in lifestyle could help you prevent it.
- Get up and move around: If you have a job that requires you to sit for long periods of time, you can try to reduce your risk of developing sciatica by getting up and moving as much as possible. Try to take at least one “movement break” per hour.
- Exercise regularly: Low-impact workouts like water aerobics, stationary bikes, and back stretches can either help treat your sciatica or prevent it from returning.
- Have proper posture: When you’re sitting down, try to keep your back straight.
- Lift properly: Physical labor can put pressure on the spine, so practice proper lifting techniques. Use your legs, not your back, for strength.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Being overweight puts extra pressure on the spine. Maintain a healthy weight to help decrease your chances of developing sciatica.
- Think about your clothes and accessories: Wearing high heels or tight pants can trigger some of the causes of sciatic pain. So can keeping items like cell phones and thick wallets in your back pocket, as they prevent proper posture.
When to See Your Doctor
In most cases, sciatic pain will go away with rest, lifestyle changes, physical therapy, heat and/or ice, and over-the-counter painkillers.
Consult your doctor if your pain isn’t going away with normal treatment, if it’s worsening, or if it’s interfering with daily life. Steroid injections, and in severe cases, surgery, might become necessary.
Signs of more potentially serious conditions include:
- Experiencing sciatica on both sides
- Pain or numbness in both legs that’s getting worse
- Problems with urination – either stopping or starting
- Trouble controlling bowels
- Sciatica associated with high fever
- Persistent sciatica with weight loss
If you’re experiencing those symptoms, it could be a more serious back condition that requires immediate treatment.
Based in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and more than 700 doctor’s offices and outpatient centers. Our expert physicians are among the leaders in their fields, and we are leaders in groundbreaking research and treatment breakthroughs. UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside ranks as “One of America’s Best Hospitals” and No. 1 in Pennsylvania in U.S. News & World Report’s listings.