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What Is Sciatica?

Sciatica is pain, tingling or numbness that radiates from your lower back and down your leg. It may result from bone or tissue compressing your sciatic nerve, but can also have many other causes.

Personalized sciatica pain relief in the Puget Sound: Why choose us?

The physiatrists (doctors with specialized training in physical medicine and rehabilitation) at our Spine Program have extensive experience treating sciatica and other spine conditions. They draw on a wide range of services at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health to help you find sciatica pain relief. If surgery is necessary, you’re in the hands of the region’s leading spine surgeons.

What does sciatica feel like?

Sciatica symptoms are a bit different for everyone. The pain may persist for weeks or months or it might flare up in episodes due to certain movements. Symptoms tend to occur on one side of your body. 

Common sciatica symptoms include: 

  • Burning or electric shock-like sensation down your leg
  • Pain from pressure on your low back, such as when you sit, sneeze or cough
  • Sharp or cramp-like pain in your low back and the back of your leg
  • Tingling or numbness in your buttocks and back of your thigh
  • Weakness or heaviness in your affected leg

What causes sciatica?

Sciatica can have many underlying causes. The most common is age-related wear and tear on your spine. Degeneration can lead to changes in your vertebrae (bones of your spine) or intervertebral discs (cushions between your vertebrae that absorb stress). 

As a result, these parts of your spine may put some pressure on your sciatic nerve, which runs from your low back through your buttocks, thighs, legs and feet. In younger people, sciatica tends to result from a sudden injury. 

Causes of sciatica can include: 

Sciatica risk factors

Certain factors put you at a higher risk for sciatica, including: 

  • Age: People between 20 and 50 are more likely to have sciatica.
  • Lifestyle: Smoking and inactivity increase the risk of spinal degeneration.
  • Occupation: Jobs with repetitive lifting, bending and twisting can lead to sciatica.
  • Weight: Being overweight or obese puts excess strain on your low back.

Sciatica diagnosis

Your provider reviews your symptoms and medical history and does a thorough physical exam. They also ask you to perform certain movements, such as walking, squatting or raising your leg. 

During a straight leg raise test, you lay on your back with your legs straight. Your provider gradually raises your affected leg and asks you to report when and where you feel pain. This test may help your provider learn if you have a herniated disc or another lower spine issue. 

Most people don’t need imaging exams for sciatica. But if your provider suspects a more serious condition, such as a spinal fracture or tumor, they may order an X-ray, MRI or CT scan.

Treatments for sciatica pain

Sciatica pain often goes away on its own after several weeks. Some people benefit from conservative treatments, and most never need surgery. 

It’s important to be patient, as it can take several weeks or months for sciatica to go away. Follow your doctor’s recommendations and contact your provider right away if your pain suddenly becomes worse.

  • You can relieve sciatica pain effectively with home remedies such as:

    • Cold and hot packs
    • Gentle stretches or yoga
    • Low-impact exercise 
    • Massage
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
    • Rest
    • Supportive shoes
  • At our Spine Program, we usually try non-surgical treatments first. This conservative approach helps most people improve their quality of life without surgery. 

    We draw on many therapies to build your treatment plan. We also provide attentive follow-up care and adjust your treatments as needed. 

    Non-surgical sciatica treatments may include: 

    • Physical therapy
    • Prescription pain medication
    • Spinal steroid injections
  • We typically reserve spine surgery for people who have significant or worsening leg weakness or pain after three or more months of conservative treatment. If you do need surgery, you can rest assured that you’re in the hands of a skilled team.

    Our Spine Program is home to board-certified and fellowship-trained spine surgeons with specialized expertise in minimally invasive spine surgery. Minimally invasive techniques use smaller incisions, so you recover faster and with less pain. 

    The type of surgery you have will depend on the underlying cause of your sciatica. Most procedures remove bone or disc material pressing on your sciatic nerve. We’ll make sure you know what to expect before, during and after your procedure. Your care team will be by your side to provide guidance and support throughout your recovery.

Contact us

Contact us to learn more about the Spine Program or to schedule an appointment with a specialist.