Sciatica: Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

The number is staggering — more than 65 million Americans suffer from back pain. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, it’s a leading cause of missed work and the most common cause of job-related disability in the United States. Let’s face it — nobody’s at the top of their game when they’re in pain. And when it’s back pain, it can be outright debilitating.

Of course, many back conditions could be causing your pain. But if you’re experiencing lower back pain that travels down your leg, you likely have a common condition called sciatica.

What Is Sciatica?

Your sciatic nerve runs from your lower back, through your hip and buttocks, and down your leg. If the pressure is placed on your sciatic nerve, it becomes irritated and can cause pain, weakness or numbness in your leg.

Sciatica is often caused by:

  • A bone spur on your spine (hard calcium deposit)
  • A herniated disc (when the cushion between your vertebra ruptures and leaks)
  • Piriformis syndrome (muscle spasms in your buttocks)
  • Pregnancy
  • Spinal Stenosis (narrowing of the area around your spine)

What Are Sciatica Symptoms?

The hallmark symptom of sciatica is pain, numbness or weakness that starts in your lower back and radiates through your buttocks and down your leg. Symptoms are usually only experienced on one side of your body.

The severity of symptoms varies widely — from a mild ache to a sharp burning sensation, to debilitating pain or weakness. The pain may get worse with prolonged sitting, certain movements, and — strangely enough — when you cough or sneeze. In extreme cases, it can cause you to lose bladder or bowel control.

When Should You See a Doctor?

If you have symptoms of sciatica, try:

  • Resting for a day or two (be sure not to remain inactive for too long)
  • Icing your back for up to 20 minutes, several times a day (for the first few days)
  • Using a heat pack on painful areas (after the first few days of the onset of pain)
  • Doing gentle stretches
  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers, like ibuprofen or naproxen

It’s common to experience symptoms for several weeks. If you don’t notice an improvement using these methods at home, it’s time to see your doctor.

Get medical help right away if you have:

  • Sudden, severe pain in your back with numbness or weakness in your legs
  • Problems walking
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Symptoms that begin after a trauma, like a car accident or fall

How Is Sciatica Treated?

Your doctor will typically try medicine(s) to reduce pain and inflammation first. You might also be referred to a physical therapist to help you stretch and strengthen your muscles to improve symptoms and to help prevent recurring injury.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend steroid injections or other treatment options, including surgery.

Emory Healthcare

Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center specialists diagnose and treat spine conditions, including sciatica.

Schedule an appointment to see an Emory specialist today. Call 404-778-3350 or complete our online appointment request form.