Sciatica is a condition that occurs when a person’s sciatic nerve becomes irritated, leading to pain along the back of one leg.
This article reviews the symptoms of sciatica, how to treat and manage it, how long it lasts, and when to see a doctor.
The sciatic nerve runs from the hip to the bottom of the feet, so sciatic pain usually concentrates on the bottom, behind the knee and lower leg.
Because of this, many people with sciatica mistakenly think the pain indicates a leg issue, not a lower back issue.
A slipped disk, or herniated disk, is the most common cause of irritation in the sciatic nerve.
The intervertebral disks are soft cushions of tissue between the vertebrae of a person’s spine. A slipped disk occurs when one becomes slightly dislodged, pushing out from the spine. This can put pressure on the sciatic nerve, causing sciatica.
Other issues may also trigger sciatica, such as tumors or infections.
Most sciatic pain lasts 4–6 weeks. Acute pain can feel like a stabbing, shooting, or burning sensation, which may subside into a dull ache.
Sciatica becomes chronic if it lasts longer than 6 weeks and does not improve.
Doctors usually recommend waiting for the issue to resolve without medical treatment unless the pain is excruciating or lasts for more than 12 months.
Many lifestyle choices can cause sciatica to appear or flare up. Most relate to a person’s chronic sedentary lifestyle.
Sitting for long periods, especially with bad posture, can trigger symptoms or make them worse. Even lying down for long periods can aggravate the sciatic nerve.
Another acute cause of sciatica is lifting heavy objects without the proper technique. This can lead to a slipped disk, which can put pressure on the sciatic nerve.
To relieve sciatic pain, try to avoid sitting or lying down for long periods. Take short walks and stay active.
If a person has to sit down for work or school, they should make sure they have a decent chair and good posture. People should also try to avoid driving long distances.
If the pain is severe, lying down with a heat or ice pack for a few minutes may help. Over-the-counter or prescription pain relief medication can also temporarily ease discomfort.
People should make sure they have good posture when they plan to sit for a long period of time.
Exercise, such as walking, yoga, pilates, and light stretching, will help reduce pain and keep sciatica from returning.
Sciatica pain usually self-resolves.
However, it helps to adopt a good sitting posture, as well as performing regular light stretching and exercise.
If sciatica pain lasts more than 6 weeks or becomes too severe, consider talking to a doctor.
Medical professionals may prescribe medications or spinal steroid injections to help relieve symptoms.
To treat the underlying cause, a doctor might suggest seeing a physical therapist for manual manipulation, massage, and specific sciatica exercises.
If the sciatic pain continues for 6 months up to 1 year, a doctor might perform surgery to remove part of the spinal disk that affects the nerve.
Here are some healthful habits that can help prevent sciatica:
- sitting and standing with good posture
- avoiding sitting or lying down for long periods
- using good form when picking up something heavy, including lifting from the knees, not the back
- exercising and stretching regularly
Some research suggests that 40% of people will get sciatica at some point in their lives, mostly between the ages of 30–50.
For most people, sciatica will resolve on its own in a few weeks without any medical intervention. Yoga classes and some lifestyle changes may be enough to remedy the issue.
However, in some cases, the pain may be extreme and could last many months.
People with chronic sciatica may need medical treatment, such as physical therapy, injections, or surgery.
Sciatica results from pain due to irritation of the sciatic nerve. People can experience sciatic pain in the lower back, buttocks, and down the back of either leg.
Sciatica usually gets better in 4–6 weeks, but it could last longer. If the pain is severe or lasts more than 6 weeks, consider talking to a doctor about treatment options.