What is sciatica?
The sciatic nerve runs from the spine in your lower back, down to the buttocks and the back of the leg. If your sciatic nerve becomes compressed at the point where it leaves the spine, it causes pain that spreads down the length of the nerve, known as sciatica.
What causes sciatica?
Around 90%* of sciatica cases are caused by a spinal disc herniation. This occurs when the soft part of the disc bulges out through a weakness in the outer layer, and this can press on the nearby sciatic nerve. Other causes of sciatica include:
- Spinal stenosis, or narrowing of the spinal canal
- Pregnancy, as it increases pressure on the spine
- Injury to the lower back
- Spinal tumours – rarely, these can compress the sciatic nerve
How is sciatica diagnosed?
Sciatica typically causes a tingling or burning pain in your lower back which spreads down to the buttocks and the back of the legs. It can affect one leg or both. Sometimes it can also cause your legs to feel weak. A spinal specialist will ask you about these symptoms and perform a careful assessment to check for movements you find painful. They will likely perform a straight leg raise to pinpoint the pain. In addition, imaging such as x-rays, or MRI scans can help to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment and recovery
Non-surgical treatment is often effective at relieving the symptoms of sciatica. Light movement and exercise, along with physiotherapy and appropriate pain relief will all aid your recovery. Sometimes, an injection into the spine to block the irritated nerve, called a nerve block, may be offered. Recovery usually takes up to 6 weeks with these methods. Our spinal specialists take a holistic approach to your treatment, and only consider surgery after all other options have been exhausted.
If treatment has not been successful and your symptoms are still present, then you may require surgery. Different procedures are available if your sciatica is caused by disc herniation or spinal stenosis, so please read our advice on surgery and recovery under these sections.
*Patient.info, Tidy, C. (2016). Lower Back Pain. [online]. Available at: https://patient.info/health/back-and-spine-pain/lower-back-pain#nav-1 [Accessed 12 Feb. 2019].