Sciatica - Introduction
NHS Choices Medical Reference
Sciatica is the name given to any sort of pain that is caused by irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve.
The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in your body. It runs from the back of your pelvis, through your buttocks, and all the way down both legs, ending at your feet.
When something compresses or irritates the sciatic nerve, it can cause a pain that radiates out from your lower back and travels down your leg to your calf (see Sciatica - symptoms for more information). Sciatic pain can range from being mild to very painful.
A slipped disc is the most common identified cause of sciatica, but in some cases there is no obvious cause (see Sciatica - causes for more information).
Types of sciatica
There are two types of sciatica:
- acute sciatica, which lasts up to six weeks
- persistent (chronic) sciatica, which lasts longer than six weeks
Most cases of acute sciatica will pass without the need for treatment. A combination of self-help measures such as over-the-counter painkillers, exercise and hot or cold packs can usually relieve the symptoms.
For persistent sciatica, you may be advised to try a structured exercise programme under the supervision of a physiotherapist. In very rare cases, surgery may be needed to control the symptoms.
Most people find their sciatic pain goes away naturally within a few days or weeks. However, see your GP if:
- you experience any other symptoms together with your back and leg pain, such as weight loss or loss of bladder or bowel control
- you experience increasingly more pain and discomfort
- your pain is too severe to manage with self-help measures
In these cases, your GP should check whether there is a more serious problem causing your pain.
The spine supports the skeleton, and surrounds and protects the delicate spinal cord and nerves. It is made up of 33 bones called the vertebrae