What is Sciatica and, how can you manage it?

Lower Back Pain is extremely common, and most of us will suffer from it at some point in our life. Many people with low back pain also experience pain travelling into the buttock or leg. This may cause pins and needles or numbness and is referred to as sciatica. Most back and/or leg pain does not have a serious cause and can come on for no reason and whilst it can be very distressing does not necessarily require emergency medical attention.

What is sciatica?

Sciatica is a term used to describe nerve pain in the leg.

The sciatic nerve is a large nerve that starts in the buttock and travels into the leg. This nerve is formed by smaller nerves known as nerve roots that enter and exit the spine in the lower back. Irritation of these nerve roots can cause pain in the buttock, thigh, calf and foot.

What are the symptoms of sciatica?

Pain is traveling down one of your legs. You can also experience burning pain, electric shock type sensations and pins and needles. Some people may experience numbness or weakness in the leg. This is because some signals in the nerve can be blocked.

What causes sciatica?

Swelling or inflammation from structures near the nerves can cause them to be irritated or even compressed. One of the commonest structures involved are the intervertebral discs of the spine. As we age these dry out and start to flatten, causing them to swell or thicken around the edges. This happens to all of us to varying amounts although we usually aren’t aware of it as it often doesn’t cause symptoms as the body adapts. However, in some people this can be enough to irritate the nerve making it unhealthy or sensitive resulting in symptoms.

How to help your pain and how long does it last?

· In most cases sciatica will resolve in 6-12 weeks but may last longer.

· Try to keep active and continue with your normal activities as much as possible.

· Avoid sitting or lying for long periods during the day. Even if moving hurts, it’s not harmful and will help you get better quicker.

· Start gentle exercise as soon as you can. Any exercise that gets you moving is good, so try to do something you enjoy. Remember to practise regularly and gradually increase the amount you do. Lower Back (How Can I Help Myself) – Sussex MSK Partnership (

· Take pain relief if necessary to help you continue with your usual activities. Speak tour team of Pharmacists for further advice. Sometimes if your leg pain is severe, your GP may prescribe some nerve pain modulating medication that may help.

Do I need a scan to diagnose sciatica?

Scans are not usually required to diagnose sciatica.

Sciatica is a clinical diagnosis based on history, symptoms and physical examination. In many cases scans do not influence treatment plans. For a small group of people with sciatica, scans are appropriate as a part of surgical planning or when considering a specialist nerve injection.

Scans are also appropriate when we suspect a person’s pain is due to a serious medical condition. Thankfully, these conditions are rare and an assessment with your health professional will help determine if you require a scan.

Discuss any concerns you have with your health professional.

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