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Sciatica refers to an irritation of the sciatic nerve caused by pressure. This nerve begins in the lower spine and travels deep in the pelvis to the lower buttocks. From there, it passes along the back of each upper leg and divides at the knee into branches that go to the feet. 

Sciatica Nerve Pain

Sciatic nerve pain

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Sciatica can result from:

  • Herniated disk
  • Arthritis in the lower back
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Compression of nerves at the bottom of the spine
  • Piriformis syndrome


Lifestyle and personal health factors increase your risk for sciatica, such as:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • History of low back problems
  • Anxiety and depression

Occupational factors, such as:

  • Heavy manual labor
  • Heavy lifting
  • Exposure to vibrations
  • A job that requires standing for long periods of time and forward bending

Health conditions, such as:

  • Fractures in the back
  • Tumors
  • Infections
  • Metabolic problems, such as diabetes

Sciatica Symptoms

Sciatica can cause:

  • Burning, tingling or a shooting pain down the back of one leg
  • Pain in one leg or buttock may get worse with:
    • Sitting
    • Standing up
    • Coughing
    • Sneezing
    • Straining
  • Weakness or numbness in a leg or foot

More serious symptoms associated with sciatica that may require immediate medical attention include:

  • Continuing weakness in a leg or foot
  • Numbness in groin or the buttocks
  • Difficulty walking, standing or moving
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Fever, unexplained weight loss or other signs of illness

Your doctor can confirm diagnosis with imaging scans or a nerve study.


Treatments aim to reduce sciatic nerve irritation and can include pain relievers and exercising.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy may include:

  • Cold packs or heat therapy
  • Stretching and strengthening exercises
  • Massage
  • Ultrasound treatments or electrical stimulation
  • Posture education and appropriate lifting instructions

Alternative Therapies

Some people may find some pain relief from:

  • Biofeedback
  • Acupuncture


Surgery (microdiscectomy or lumbar laminectomy) may be done to relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve in emergency situations or if other treatments fail. 


Sciatica tends to happen more than one time. To help reduce your chances of sciatica, take these steps:

  • Use proper body movement when playing sports, exercising or lifting heavy objects.
  • Practice good posture to reduce pressure on your spine.
  • Begin a safe exercise program with the advice of your doctor.
  • If possible, avoid sitting or standing in one position for long periods.
  • Consider job retraining if your work requires a lot of heavy lifting or sitting.


Call 434.243.3675.

Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.