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Sciatica - Introduction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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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. Sciatic pain can range from being mild to very painful.

Read more about the symptoms of sciatica.

Causes of sciatica

slipped disc is the most common identified cause of sciatica, but in some cases there is no obvious cause.

Less common causes include spinal stenosis (narrowing of the nerve passages in the spine), injury, infection or a growth in the spine.

Read more about the causes of sciatica.

When to see your GP

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.

Read more about how sciatica is diagnosed.

Treating sciatica

Most cases of short-term (known as acute) sciatica will pass without the need for treatment. A combination of things you can do at home, such as taking over-the-counter painkillers, exercise and hot or cold packs can usually relieve the symptoms.

For persistent sciatica (known as chronic), 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.

Read more about how sciatica is treated.

Preventing sciatica

There are some steps you can take to minimise your risk of a slipped disc or back injury that could lead to sciatica. This includes:

  • better posture and lifting techniques at work
  • stretching before and after exercise
  • simple, regular exercises to improve flexibility

Read more about preventing sciatica.

Medical Review: August 13, 2012
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