Better Me

How to Tell if Sciatica Is Triggering the Pain in Your Back

If you have pain that runs from your lower back through your buttock, down your leg and into your ankle or foot, it could be sciatica. Sciatica (lumbar radiculopathy) is a medical condition caused when your sciatic nerve gets irritated.

“With sciatica, the pain is typically constant, but it can be aggravated by movement or activity,” said R. John Hurlbert, MD, a neurosurgeon with Banner Brain & Spine. It’s common to have numbness and tingling that accompanies the nerve pain.

What causes sciatica?

A herniated disc or a bone spur on your spine that puts pressure on the sciatic nerve are common causes of sciatica.

Sciatica mostly strikes people in their 30s and 40s. “In this group, more than 90 percent of people will get better and back to normal without surgery,” Dr. Hurlbert said.

How is sciatica diagnosed?

It can be hard to diagnose sciatica since back pain is so widespread and stems from many causes. Your health care provider will:

  • Ask you to explain where you’re feeling pain and what the pain feels like
  • Perform a neurological and physical exam
  • Most likely, recommend an MRI exam to look for a herniated disc, bone spur or other cause of your pain

How can you prevent sciatica?

There is no way to 100% guarantee you will avoid sciatica, but you can take steps to reduce your risk of developing it.

Risk factors for developing sciatica include being overweight, smoking or both. So, staying within 10 pounds of your ideal body weight and avoiding nicotine products are two of the best ways you can avoid it.

Dr. Hurlbert also recommends that you do exercises to strengthen your core and you take care to avoid injuring your spine. For example, when doing heavy lifting, remember to lift with your legs, not your back.

How can you treat sciatica?

If your health care provider diagnoses sciatica, many different treatments can help you heal and alleviate the pain. In the first 6 to 12 weeks after your symptoms start, you can consider:

  • Lifestyle modification to avoid making the pain worse
  • Medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Physical therapy
  • Massage
  • Chiropractic manipulation
  • Acupuncture
  • Steroid injections

If you think you might have sciatica, talk to your health care provider before you let too much time pass. “If your symptoms are getting worse or last more than 12 weeks, surgery might be the best option,” Dr. Hurlbert said.

When should you seek care right away?

If you have sciatica pain in both legs, numbness in your perineum, or weakness when you’re standing on your heels or toes, see your doctor as soon as possible since these symptoms could be signs of a medical emergency.

The bottom line

It’s common to injure your back and develop symptoms of sciatica. If you do, talk to your health care provider. Most people heal without surgery. If you need to find a provider to help evaluate and treat your back pain, Banner Health can help.

To learn more about your back and neck pain, take our free back and neck pain assessment.

To learn more about keeping your back healthy, dig into these articles:

Neurosciences Orthopedics Brain and Spine