Sciatica (sy-AT-i-ka) is a form of lower back pain that usually moves from the buttocks down the back of the leg.


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Herniated disk

Lower back pain

Sciatic nerve

What Is Sciatica?

When something squeezes the sciatic nerve, the main nerve in the leg, people feel pain in the back of the lower body. That pain, called sciatica, usually moves down the buttocks to the leg below the knee, but it can go all the way down to the foot. Sciatica varies from mild, tingling pain to severe pain that leaves people unable to move. Some people with sciatica feel sharp pain in one part of the leg or hip and numbness in other parts. This pain gets worse after standing or sitting for a long time.

Sciatica is most common in people who are ages 30 to 70, and it affects about three times as many men as women. At risk are:

  • people who are sedentary (not very active)
  • people who exercise improperly
  • people who smoke
  • athletes
  • people who lift, bend, and twist in awkward positions in their jobs
  • pregnant women
  • tall people.
The sciatic nerve is the main nerve in the leg. It branches into the tibial and peroneal nerves.
The sciatic nerve is the main nerve in the leg. It branches into the tibial and peroneal nerves.

What Causes Sciatica?

There are many ways the sciatic nerve can become compressed, but the exact cause is often unknown. The most common causes of sciatica are a herniated disc or a tumor within the spine. Discs are the pads between the bones (called vertebrae) of the spine. They are filled with a gelatin-like substance that cushions the vertebrae from the impact of walking, running, lifting, and similar activities.

A disc that has torn and has this gelatin-like material oozing out of it is said to be herniated. Other common causes of sciatica include bony irregularities of the vertebrae such as osteoarthritis * or spondylolisthesis * . Spinal stenosis * is a less common cause. In some cases, diabetes or alcoholism can cause sciatica.

How Is Sciatica Diagnosed and Treated?

Sciatica is diagnosed through a medical history and a physical examination. Sciatica often clears up within several days to a week. It is usually treated with bed rest for a day or two (only if people cannot bear the pain), local heat, massage, pain relievers, and muscle relaxants. Sciatica tends to return and can become chronic * . Chronic sciatica is treated by trying to alleviate the cause of the pain by advising people to lose weight, improve muscle tone and strength, and improve posture. Surgery may be necessary in cases where there is no relief from pain, disc disease, or spinal stenosis. The goal of surgery is to eliminate the source of pressure on the sciatic nerve.

* osteoarthritis (os-tee-o-ar-THRY-tis) is a painful joint disease.

* spondylolisthesis (spon-di-lo-lis-THEE-sis) is a condition in which one vertebra slips aver the other.

* spinal stenosis (SPY-nal ste-NO-sis) is the narrowing of the spinal canal.

* chronic (KRON-ik) means continuing for a long period of time.

Can Sciatica Be Prevented?

Sciatica or recurrence of sciatica can sometimes be prevented by standing, sitting, and lifting properly; exercising; and working in a safe environment. That means using chairs, desks, and equipment that support the back or help maintain good posture, and taking precautions when lifting and bending.

See also
Slipped Disk



Tollison, David. Handbook of Pain Management. Baltimore: Williams andWilkins, 1994.


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