What are the causes of sciatica and how do I know if I have it?


Sciatica is a particularly uncomfortable condition that affects up to 3% of the population every year. Characterized by a burning, tingling or electric shock-like pain in the butt or leg, sometimes causing weakness in the leg or foot, sciatica is usually worse when sitting, standing for a long period of time, or coming to a stand from a low sitting position.

Sciatic pain is caused by irritation of, or interference with, the sciatic nerve. This bundle of nerves exits the spinal cord in the lumbar spine and runs down the back of each leg to the feet and toes. Although this condition is referred to as Sciatica or sciatic pain, it is not actually a diagnosis in and of itself, but an indication of another underlying problem.

The underlying conditions that can cause sciatic pain vary, but some of the more common ones are:

Slipped Disc

When an intervertebral disc moves out of position in the lower area of the spinal cord and starts to bulge out one side, it can press on the nerve roots that make up the sciatic nerve, causing sciatic pain. Intervertebral discs can slip due to heavy lifting, arthritis or other degenerative disease, traumatic injury, or even just sitting too much.

Spinal Stenosis

The narrowing of the spinal cord that occurs in cases of spinal stenosis can result in interference with the spinal cord when the the area the nerve passes through grows smaller and begins to pinch or irritate the spinal cord.

Piriformis Syndrome

This is not technically a spinal problem, but sciatic pain as a result of the piriformis muscle, which is a small muscle in the pelvic area, going into spasms or otherwise putting pressure on the sciatic nerve as it runs through the pelvic area.


Infrequently, sciatica can be caused by tumors in the lower spine. Spinal tumors are very rare, but when they occur in the lower back they can press on, or irritate the nerve roots that make up the sciatic nerve.

If you experience any of the symptoms listed below, your back pain could be a result of a more serious condition and you should see a doctor right away:

  • Pain resulting from a trauma or injury you have suffered
  • Weakness or loss of sensation in your limbs
  • Very severe pain
  • A history of cancer
  • Pain that wakes you from sleep
  • Pain that doesn’t get better after a week or two of home care
  • Weight loss
  • Fever or chills
  • Numbness in the groin
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

Treatment for sciatica depends on the diagnoses of the underlying condition causing the sciatica. Treatments range from physical therapy, to steroidal injections, to surgery in extreme cases. You should visit your doctor for a complete diagnosis and treatment options.