What Is Sciatica?

Illustration by Keila Gonzalez
Illustration by Keila Gonzalez

This informational guide, part of POPSUGAR's Condition Center, lays out the realities of this health concern: what it is, what it can look like, and strategies that medical experts say are proven to help. You should always consult your doctor regarding matters pertaining to your health and before starting any course of medical treatment.

Sciatica is a type of pain that travels along the sciatic nerve, which runs from your lower back, through your hips and butt, and down each leg, according to Mayo Clinic. It can cause quite a bit of discomfort in the body. Some describe the sensation as a "shooting" or "radiating" type of pain, Serena Hu, MD, spine surgeon and professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford, tells POPSUGAR.

Unfortunately, sciatica is a common occurrence for many, with about 40 percent of people experiencing the pain at some point in their life. Celebrities like Adele and Whoopi Goldberg have been open about their experiences with the potentially debilitating sensation — Adele told her audience during her Las Vegas residency, "I have to waddle these days as I have really bad sciatica."

Luckily, there are certain treatment options that can help ease sciatica pain, and knowing how to spot the signs and symptoms could help healthcare providers point you in the right direction sooner rather than later. Ahead, find everything there is to know about sciatica, including how long sciatica lasts, what causes sciatica, how to find relief from sciatica, and the best sciatica exercises.

Understanding Sciatica

Sciatica isn't a condition itself; it's actually a symptom of other medical problems. It occurs when the sciatic nerve is experiencing pressure or has been damaged. "The sciatic nerve itself, it's a combination of nerves that run from the back of the spine all the way down the back of the leg and into the calf area, and so sciatica is irritation around any distribution along that path that that nerve takes," explains Rahul Shah, MD, board-certified orthopedic spine and neck surgeon at Premier Orthopaedic Spine Associates.

Dr. Shah compares the sciatic nerve to a highway with tons of traffic flowing. "If the traffic gets backed up or jammed up, then it's going to hurt in that area," he explains.

The most common symptoms of sciatica, per Johns Hopkins Medicine and Cleveland Clinic, include the following:

  • Lower-back pain that radiates or spreads down your butt and the back of one thigh
  • Pain that extends from your butt down to your foot
  • Numbness in the lower half of your body
  • Muscle weakness in your legs and feet

Most cases of sciatica can be cleared up with treatment in a few weeks. However, some people who have severe sciatica, which can include serious leg weakness or bowel and bladder changes, may have to undergo surgery, according to Mayo Clinic.

Sciatica is typically diagnosed by a healthcare provider using a physical exam and imaging like a spinal X-ray or MRI to confirm your diagnosis, per Cleveland Clinic.

Causes of Sciatica

"Sciatica is irritation of the sciatic nerve, and it can come about from a variety of reasons," Dr. Shah says. A few common medical conditions experts tend to cite include:

  • Prolonged sitting: "When you sit, your body weight puts increased pressure on your sciatic nerve below your hips. The longer you sit, the more pressure that's put on your nerves and the vertebrae in your lower spine," according to the Spinal Stenosis & Disc Center, Inc.
  • Physical trauma: This could be anything from a car accident to a sports injury that has impacted or compressed the sciatic nerves, per Align Wellness Center.
  • A herniated disc: This is the most common cause of sciatica, Dr. Hu says. "We all have different vertebra in our spine. They're sort of stacked on each other, and between all the vertebra are intervertebral discs, and the discs are the cushioning part of the spine," she explains. When one of those discs tears or leaks, it's called a herniated disc, and when this happens to the vertebrae, it can put pressure on the sciatic nerve. Risk factors for herniated discs include aging, sitting too long in the same position, and lifting heavy objects, among other things, per Cleveland Clinic.
  • Spinal stenosis, or the abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal: "This narrowing reduces the available space for the spinal cord and nerves," per Cleveland Clinic, which can create that triggering pressure on the sciatic nerve.
  • Rarely, but sometimes, tumors: Those particularly in the lumbar spinal canal (the lower part of the spine) can compress the sciatic nerve.
  • Piriformis syndrome: This neuromuscular disorder is not super common, but it's what happens when the piriformis muscle, a small muscle in the butt, becomes tight or spasms, resulting in pressure and irritation in the sciatic nerve, per Cleveland Clinic.

There are also certain risk factors for sciatica, including aging, diabetes, and leading an inactive lifestyle, all of which can increase your chances of nerve damage.

Best Exercises and Treatment For Sciatica

Many cases of sciatica can and will go away over time with self-care treatments and lifestyle changes.

Most people "can start with nonoperative treatment options," Dr. Shah says, including activity modification, over-the-counter medication, and yoga and stretching exercises. Simple lifestyle changes, like getting up and going for a walk, can also be helpful for symptoms of sciatica, Dr. Shah says. As you increase the blood flow to the areas in your body where the nerves are, you can help promote your body's own healing, he explains. Movement can help "with the symptoms of the irritation and hopefully to try and alleviate some mechanical factors that might be causing that discomfort," Dr. Shah says. Using cold or hot packs can also help provide relief.

Cleveland Clinic cautions that after a six-week trial of conservative, self-care treatments, like the kind mentioned above, and little to no relief, your healthcare provider will likely suggest other treatment options.

Depending on the cause of your sciatica, your provider may recommend an anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy, steroid injections, or surgery, Dr. Hu says.

— Additional reporting by Maggie Ryan