Someone with sciatica can experience agonizing pain from the hip to the bottom of the leg. 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 but rather it is a symptom of an underlying medical condition.


Sciatica is characterized by one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Constant pain in      only one side of the buttock or leg (rarely occurs 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 constant pain on      one side of the rear
  • A sharp pain that      may make it difficult to stand up or to walk


The pain from sciatica varies from infrequent and irritating to constant and incapacitating. Specific sciatica symptoms also vary widely in type, location and severity, depending upon the condition causing the sciatica pain. However, while the pain can be excruciating, the likelihood of any real sciatic nerve (tissue) damage to occur is minimal.

When the large sciatic nerve is irritated, sciatica symptoms will occur. The sciatic nerve is the largest single nerve in the body and is composed of individual nerve roots that start by branching out from the spine in the lower back and combine to form the “sciatic nerve”.


Unlike other nerve conditions, sciatica is not usually the result of a sudden injury or particular event, but normally develops over time. The occurrence of sciatica increases in middle age. It rarely occurs before age 20 but the probability of experiencing sciatic pain peaks in the 50s and then declines.

The majority population who experience sciatica get better within a few weeks or months and find pain relief through non-surgical sciatica treatment. For others, however, sciatica pain from a pinched nerve can be severe and debilitating. There are a few exceptional symptoms that may require immediate medical, and possibly surgical, intervention such as progressive neurological symptoms like weakness in the legs and/or bowel or bladder dysfunction.


An underlying medical condition is usually the cause behind sciatica and treatment is focused on relieving this underlying cause of symptoms. Treatment is usually self-care and/or non-surgical, but for severe or intractable cases surgery may be an option.

Severe or ongoing flare-ups of sciatic nerve pain are treated so that it does not get worse over time. For most people, nonsurgical remedies that are readily available and regular exercise will go a long way to relieving their pain. For others with pain that is severe or does not get better on its own, a more structured treatment approach, and possibly surgery, may offer the best method to find pain relief and prevent or minimize future pain and/or dysfunction.


Non-surgical sciatica treatments encompass a broad range of options, with the goal of relieving pain caused by compressed nerve roots. These treatments are usually recommended in conjunction with specific sciatica exercises.

  • Heat or ice – For severe sciatic pain, heat and/or ice packs are readily available and can help ease the leg pain, especially in the initial phase. Usually ice or heat is applied for approximately 20 minutes, and repeated every two hours. Most people use ice first, but some people find more relief with heat. You may alternate between the two.
  • Pain medications – Another treatment option is drugs. Over-the-counter or prescription medications may be helpful in relieving sciatica. Anti-inflammatory drugs or oral hormones can reduce the inflammation that is usually a contributing factor in causing sciatic pain.
  • Epidural Hormone Injections for Sciatica – When a patient is in severe pain, an epidural hormone injection can be performed to reduce the inflammation. An epidural injection is different from oral medications in that it injects hormones directly to the painful area around the sciatic nerve to help decrease the inflammation that may be causing the pain. Although its effects are temporary, an epidural hormone injection may provide sufficient relief to allow a patient to progress with a conditioning and exercise program.


Several alternative treatments have also been shown to provide effective sciatic pain relief for many patients. Three of the most common are chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture, and massage therapy.

  • Chiropractic Manipulation – Spinal adjustments and manual manipulation performed by chiropractors, osteopathic physicians, or physical therapists are focused on providing better spinal column alignment, which in turn should help to address a number of underlying conditions that can cause sciatic nerve pain.
  • Acupuncture – Practiced by the Chinese for thousands of years, this treatment focuses on achieving or maintaining well-being through the open flow of energy via specific pathways in the body. Hair-thin needles are inserted into the skin near the area of pain. Acupuncture has been approved by the U.S. FDA as a treatment for back pain and has been recognized as effective in relieving back pain, including sciatica.
  • Massage Therapy – Particular forms of massage therapy indicate a number of benefits for back pain, including increased blood circulation, muscle relaxation, and release of endorphins (the body’s natural pain relievers).

The good news for most people is that sciatica usually will get better on its own and the healing process for most will only take a few days or weeks. Overall, the vast majority of episodes of sciatic pain heal within a six to twelve week time frame. After initial pain relief, a program of sciatica physical therapy and exercise should be followed in order to alleviate pain and prevent or minimize any ongoing sciatic pain.




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