Sciatica is the condition in which the patient has nerve pain in the leg caused by irritation or compression, or both, of the sciatic nerve. Sciatica begins in the lower back, radiates in the buttock and extends down the leg.

What Does It Feel Like?

Symptoms of sciatica are usually felt along the large sciatic nerve. Sciatica is usually recognized by one or more of the following:

  • Pain. Sciatica is usually a constant burning sensation or shooting pain in the lower back or buttock and radiating down the front or back of the thigh to the leg or the feet. 
  • Numbness. Sciatica pain can be joined by numbness in the back of the leg. In some cases, tingling and/or weakness could also occur.
  • One-sided symptoms. Sciatica usually affects one leg. It usually results in a feeling of heaviness in the leg that is affected; it is rare for both legs to be affected together. 
  • Symptoms caused by posture. Sciatica symptoms feel worse when the patient is sitting, trying to stand, bending the spine forward, twisting the spine, lying down, and/or while they cough. These can be relieved by walking it out, or by applying a heat pack over the rear pelvic area.

It’s important to understand that any type of lower back pain or radiating leg pain is not necessarily sciatica. Sciatica is specific to pain that comes from the sciatic nerve. 

It Can Be A Symptom Of An Underlying Medical Condition

Sciatica is a term used to describe symptoms caused by an underlying medical condition. It is not the diagnosis itself. Some common medical conditions that can cause sciatica can include:

  • Herniated lumbar disc;
  • Lumbar spinal stenosis;
  • Lumbar degenerative disc disease;
  • Spondylolisthesis;
  • Muscle spasms;
  • Sacroiliac joint dysfunction.

Usually, a particular event of injury does not cause sciatica. It usually begins to develop over time. Sciatica affects 10 to 40 percent of the population, usually around age 40. Sciatica is common in certain types of occupations where physically strenuous positions are being used, like machine operators or truck drivers. In particular, those who bend their spine forward or sideways or who raise their arms frequently above shoulder level, are more at risk of developing sciatica.

A majority of people who experience symptoms of sciatica usually recover after 4 to 6 weeks from using non-surgical treatments. Recovery could take longer if severe neurological deficits are present. However, it is estimated that 33% of people have persistent symptoms for up to a year. When there is severe nerve compression along with symptoms getting progressively worse, surgery might be needed.

Specific symptoms of sciatica might indicate there being a serious medical condition like cauda equina syndrome, infection or spinal tumors. Symptoms can include:

  • Progressive neurological symptoms like leg weakness;
  • Symptoms in both legs;
  • Bowel or bladder dysfunction or both;
  • Sexual dysfunction.

Those experiencing these symptoms are recommended to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Sciatica which occurs after an accident or trauma, or if it shows up along with other symptoms like fever, is also a reason for seeking medical attention.