What is Sciatica?

By , PhD, ELS

Sciatica, also known as sciatic neuritis, is a set of symptoms involving pain from the back and down the leg, usually on one side of the body but it may be bilateral in some cases.

The definition of sciatica is not precise, and the prevalence of the condition has not been determined precisely for this reason. Approximately 2-40% of the population will experience sciatica at some point in their life, depending on the definition of the condition. Men are more likely to be affected that women and it tends to affect middle-aged people from 40 to 60 years old.


Sciatica is a distinct set of symptoms characterized by pain through the lower back, buttocks and various parts of the leg. The pain typically worsens with movement and may also be associated with difficulty maintaining control of the bladder or bowels.

Due to the involvement of the sciatic nerve pathway, weakness or numbness of various parts of the lower limb may be experienced. This may also present as a painful tingling in the area, which is sometimes referred to as pins and needles. Patients may have difficulty moving their leg as a result of these symptoms.

The symptoms are usually limited to one side of the body, according to the area of the sciatic nerve that has been affected. However, both sides may be affected in some cases.


Approximately 9 out of 10 patients with sciatica experience the symptoms due to a spinal disc herniation that affects the roots of the lumbar or sacral nerves. There are various possible causes of the condition, however, which include:

  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Piriformis syndrome
  • Pelvic tumors
  • Complications during pregnancy


When making a diagnosis of sciatica, a medical history should initially be taken to determine the general health of the individual and the likelihood that sciatica is responsible for the presenting symptoms.

The straight-leg-raising test is most commonly used in patient consultations to establish the involvement of sciatica. For the test, the individual should be lying down horizontally on their back and their leg should be raised. If they experience a shot of pain behind their knee as the leg is raised, a diagnosis of sciatica is likely and further medical tests are not usually required.

However, if there is a possibility that another health condition with more serious outcomes may be responsible for the symptoms, this should be investigated further. Example that may require additional tests include:

  • Altered bladder function
  • Altered bowel function
  • Strong symptoms of numbness or weakness
  • Chronic symptoms
  • Suspected infection
  • Suspected tumor


The specific treatment for sciatica can vary greatly according to the cause of the symptoms.

Analgesic medication is the usual first-line treatment to manage the pain associated with sciatica. Paracetamol is a good choice, as it is associated with few side effects, but non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or aspirin are also commonly recommended.

The condition is usually improved spontaneously within approximately six weeks and pain relief is recommended simply to help the patient to cope with pain in the meantime. Although it is likely that abilities of the person may be limited by the presence of symptoms, it is suggested that they continue with their normal daily routine as much as possible.

If the condition continues on a chronic basis or is particularly severe, further treatment may be required. This may involve pharmacotherapy such as steroids or gabapentin, complementary medicine such as acupuncture or surgery. However, the long-term benefits of these treatments have not been well established by scientific research.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Aug 24, 2015

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