The pain radiates down your leg
“By strict definition, sciatica refers to pain produced by damage to, pressure on, or inflammation of the sciatic nerve,” says Robert Gotlin, DO, a sports and spine physician in NYC and an associate professor of rehabilitation medicine and orthopedics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. This nerve, the longest and widest in the body, runs from the lower back, travels deep into the buttocks, down the back of each leg, to the soles of the feet and the big toes. However, according to Dr. Gotlin, the term sciatica has become synonymous with the presence of any pain that originates in the lower back or buttock and then travels to the thigh, leg, or foot. Learn more about the different kinds of leg pain and which ones are serious.
The pain feels like a burning or electrical sensation
“Nerves are very similar to electrical circuits, and the sensation from sciatica is similar to what happens if you touch a live electrical wire,” explains Dr. Gotlin. The pain from sciatica symptoms can be so intense that it’s tough to walk or stand. Less often the pain feels like a dull sensation. “It depends on how much damage there is to the sciatic nerve,” says Dr. Gotlin. Here are other possible causes of your back pain.
The pain is on one side
Typically sciatica occurs only in one leg, but depending on where the nerve is injured, sciatica symptoms can affect both limbs. For instance, if it’s in the spine, the pain can travel into both legs. If the injury is only on one side of the spine or in the buttocks or leg itself, the pain is usually on just one side. Here's what pain doctors want you to know about relieving pain.
The pain gets worse when you sneeze, cough, or laugh
Anything that increases pressure on the sciatic nerve—even the littlest moves—can exacerbate the pain. Sitting for long periods of time and straining during a bowel movement also usually put pressure on the nerve and worsen pain. These are signs you're too sedentary and need to move more.
You have spinal stenosis
Natural wear and tear of the vertebrae is the main cause of a narrowing of the spinal canal called spinal stenosis. This compression, which is most common in adults over age 50, can put pressure on the sciatic nerves. With spinal stenosis, symptoms are usually present or will worsen only when you’re standing or walking. In fact, symptoms will often ease or disappear when you’re sitting or lying down or leaning forward, as these positions may create more space in the spinal canal and relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve. Find out about another little-known condition that triggers sciatica.
You carry your wallet in your back pocket
Piriformis syndrome occurs when an object like a wallet or phone pinches the piriformis muscle, a narrow muscle located deep in the buttocks. This muscle is connected to the sciatic nerve, and over time, the compression of the nerve can lead to sciatica symptoms. Here are home remedies for pain that doctors trust.
You have a ruptured disk
While typically referred to as a condition, sciatica is actually a symptom of pressure or injury of the sciatic nerve. The most common cause—occurring in 90 percent of cases—is a rupture in one or more of the disks that cushion the 26 bones of the spine. These disks get weaker as you age and become more vulnerable to injury; sometimes their jelly-like center pushes through its outer lining and presses on the sciatic nerve. About one in 50 people will get a ruptured (or herniated) disk at some point in their life. Learn more about the pain symptoms you should never ignore.