What is sciatica?

Published: Friday, August 18, 2023
Paul Turner
Physical Therapist

Sciatica is a condition that affects the sciatic nerve, which is the largest nerve in the body. This nerve runs from the lower back down to the legs and feet, and when it becomes inflamed or compressed, it can cause a range of symptoms.  

Symptoms of Sciatica  

The symptoms of sciatica can vary depending on the severity of the condition. Some common symptoms include:  

  • Pain in the lower back, buttocks, back of the legs (not front), or feet  
  • Numbness or tingling in the legs or feet  
  • Weakness in the legs or feet  
  • Difficulty standing up or walking  
  • Shooting pain that travels down the leg  
  • Pain that is worse when sitting or standing for long periods of time  
  • Pain that is aggravated by coughing or sneezing 

Causes of Sciatica  

Traditionally Sciatica has been used as an umbrella term to encompass several potential injuries including:  

  • Herniated disc:
    A herniated disc occurs when the soft inner core of a spinal disc bulges out and puts pressure on the nerve roots that supply the sciatic nerve.  
  • Spinal stenosis:
    This condition occurs when the spinal canal narrows, putting pressure on the nerves that run through it.  
  • Piriformis syndrome:
    The piriformis muscle is located in the buttocks and can sometimes irritate the sciatic nerve.  
  • Degenerative Disc Disease:
    This condition occurs when the discs in the spine degenerate over time, which can lead to disc herniation and nerve compression.  
  • Spondylolisthesis:
    This condition occurs when one vertebra slips out of place and puts pressure on the nerve roots that make up the sciatic nerve.  
  • Neural Tension:
    Injury to the sciatic nerve itself from trauma or entrapment causing tension.   

Treatment for Sciatica  

Treatment for sciatica will depend on the underlying cause of the condition. This is why it is important to see a Physical Therapist to help determine the root cause of your Sciatica. 

Some common treatments include:  

  • Physical therapy:
    During physical therapy for sciatica, your therapist may use a variety of techniques to help you recover. These may include exercises to stretch and strengthen the muscles in your lower back, buttocks, and legs, as well as manual therapy techniques such as massage and spinal manipulation. A Physical Therapist can tailor your exercises to your specific root cause to maximize your recovery. 
  • Medications:
    Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, may help relieve pain. In some cases, prescription medications may be necessary to manage pain and inflammation.  
  • Injection therapy:
    Injections of corticosteroids or numbing medications can help reduce inflammation and relieve pain.  
  • Surgery:
    In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve.  

Preventing Sciatica  

There are several steps you can take to help prevent sciatica, including:  

  • Maintaining good posture:
    Sitting and standing with good posture can help reduce the risk of developing sciatica.  
  • Staying active:
    Regular exercise can help strengthen the muscles that support the spine and reduce the risk of injury.  
  • Lifting properly:
    When lifting heavy objects, be sure to lift with your legs and not your back to avoid injury.  
  • Avoiding prolonged sitting:
    Sitting for long periods of time can put pressure on the sciatic nerve. If you must sit for long periods, take frequent breaks to stretch and walk around.  

Next Steps

With the right care, you can relieve your pain and get back to doing the activities you love. Prevention is key when it comes to sciatica. Maintaining a healthy weight, practicing good posture, engaging in regular exercise, and avoiding prolonged periods of sitting or standing can all help reduce the risk of developing sciatica. If you experience any symptoms of sciatica, it is important to seek a Physical Therapist to avoid further complications and ensure that you receive appropriate treatment.  

For more information, please visit https://www.nghs.com/rehabilitation-services