Sciatica is the term used to describe the pain, numbness and tingling that may be experienced when part of your lower spinal cord is compressed, usually due to a slipped disc.

Summary introduction

More specifically, it's when the sciatic nerve, which runs from your spine through each of your legs to your feet, becomes irritated due to compression. This can cause you to feel any or all of the following:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Pins and needles
  • Weak

in any of the following areas:

  • Buttocks
  • Back of thighs
  • Outer calf
  • Feet
  • Toes

Sciatica is more likely to occur if you take part in strenuous activity, such as heavy lifting, or sometimes even driving.

Symptoms usually disappear without needing treatment, and there are things you can do at home to help.

Causes of sciatica

The main causes of sciatic nerve compression are:

  • Slipped disc when the soft tissue between your vertebrae squeezes out and presses on the sciatic nerve (about 90% of cases)
  • Spondylolisthesis – one of your vertebrae has slipped out of position and is pushing on the sciatic nerve
  • Spinal stenosis – your spinal cord has narrowed in the area where the sciatic nerve passes through
  • Back injury or fracture

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

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Getting a diagnosis for sciatica

Symptoms for sciatica usually get better within six weeks. However, if your symptoms get worse suddenly or they're stopping you from your everyday activities, you should see your GP as soon as possible.

Treatments for sciatica

How to treat sciatica at home

There are a number of things you can do to help relieve sciatica symptoms and aid recovery:

  • Regular back stretches
  • Gentle exercise
  • Heat packs
  • Painkillers such as ibuprofen (not paracetamol, as this won't help)

Try to avoid the following to prevent it from getting worse:

  • Sitting or lying down for a long time
  • Using hot water bottles - if your skin is numb, you may scald yourself without realising it

How long does sciatica last?

Symptoms usually get better within six weeks.

Your GP will initially suggest painkillers and exercise for sciatica relief and may refer you to a physiotherapist to teach you which exercises and massage techniques will be beneficial.

If these don't work or your symptoms are exceptionally bad, then your doctor may suggest:

  • Steroid injections to relieve the pain
  • Spinal decompression surgery to relieve the pressure on your sciatic nerve