What Is Sciatica?

Sciatica is a symptom of a problem with the sciatic nerve, the largest nerve in the body. It controls muscles in the back of your knee and lower leg and provides feeling to the back of your thigh, part of your lower leg, and the sole of your foot.

When you have sciatica, you have pain, weakness, numbness, or tingling. It can start in the lower back and extend down your leg to your calf, foot, or even your toes. It’s usually on only one side of your body.

Causes of Sciatica

Causes of sciatica include the following:

  • A ruptured intervertebral disk 
  • Narrowing of the spinal canal that puts pressure on the nerve, called spinal stenosis 
  • An injury such as a pelvic fracture.

In many cases no cause can be found.

Other Causes

Many conditions and activities can also put pressure on your sciatic nerve. These may include the following:

  • Tumors
  • Blood clots
  • Nerve disorders
  • Bad posture
  • Obesity
  • Unusual sitting positions
  • Abscesses (an area of pus that sits under the skin in organs or tissues)

Sometimes doctors can’t figure out what is causing sciatica.

Treatment for Sciatica

Sometimes sciatica goes away on its own. Treatment, if needed, depends on the cause of the problem. It may include:

  • exercises,
  • medicines, or
  • surgery (to fix your herniated disk).

If you have a mild case of sciatica, your doctor may recommend treating your pain at home and resting. This may include taking over the counter anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen or putting hot or cold packs on sore muscles.

Your doctor may also recommend that you avoid sitting for long periods of time and keep moving. Movement helps reduce the inflammation that causes pain.

Long-Term Effects of Sciatic Nerve Damage

Over time, most cases of sciatica go away on their own with rest. But you may have long-term complications if the pressure that pushes down on your spinal nerve (also called nerve compression) doesn’t go away. Some people develop long-term problems from nerve compression including:

  • having pain that gets worse over time,
  • losing control of your bladder or bowels,
  • developed a herniated (or slipped) disk,
  • having weakness or losing feeling in one of your legs,
  • or developing permanent nerve damage. For these reasons, it’s important you call your doctor right away if:
  • your pain is getting worse,
  • you have weakness in your leg or if you lose feeling,
  • your pain comes back after you’ve already treated your sciatica,
  • or if you start having bladder or bowel problems.

Note: Some of this content is provided and made available by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).