The term sciatica describes the symptoms of leg pain and possibly tingling, numbness or weakness that originates in the lower back and travels through the buttock and down the large sciatic nerve in the back of the leg. Sciatica is not a medical diagnosis in and of itself – it is a symptom of an underlying medical condition like a herniated disc.
Sciatica is often characterized by one or more of the following symptoms:
- Constant pain in only one side of the buttock or leg (rarely can occur in both legs)
- Pain that is worse when sitting
- Burning or tingling down the leg (vs. a dull ache)
- Weakness, numbness or difficulty moving the leg or foot
- A sharp pain that may make it difficult to stand up or to walk
Most people who experience sciatica get better within a few weeks or months and find pain relief with conservative care options such as alternating heat and ice treatments, pain and anti-inflammatory medications, and steroid injections.
For others, however, sciatica pain can be severe and debilitating. Often, a particular event or injury does not cause sciatica, but rather it tends to develop over time. Because sciatica is caused by an underlying medical condition, treatment is focused on relieving the underlying causes of symptoms. Treatment is usually self-care and/or non-surgical, but for severe or intractable cases surgery may be an option.
While symptoms can be very painful, it is rare that permanent sciatic nerve damage will result. However, there are a few symptoms that may require immediate medical, and possibly surgical, intervention, such as progressive neurological symptoms like leg weakness and/or bowel or bladder dysfunction.