Exams and Tests for Sciatica
How Your Doctor Diagnoses Sciatic Nerve Pain
Call your spine specialist if you suspect you have sciatica. (If you don't already have a spine specialist, you can find one using our Find a Spine Specialist feature.) You may think you have sciatica if you're experiencing shooting pain down one or both of your legs, or if you've been experiencing weakness or tingling in your legs.
During your medical visit, your doctor or spine specialist will ask you questions and perform some basic exams. This is to try to identify the cause of your sciatica and develop a treatment plan for you—a way to manage your pain and other symptoms and to help you recover.
As you can learn in our doctor-written article on the 6 leading causes of sciatica, there are several spinal disorders that can lead to sciatic pain. Your treatment plan will be depending on the root cause of your pain, so it's important to get an accurate diagnosis.
First, your spine specialist will ask about your current symptoms and remedies you have already tried. He or she will also ask some typical questions, such as:
- When did the sciatic nerve pain start?
- Where do you feel pain? Is it all the way down your leg? Is it in both legs? Does it stop at your knee?
- On a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst pain imaginable, rate your pain.
- Are you experiencing weakness or tingling in your legs and/or feet?
- What activities did you recently do?
- Does walking uphill or downhill increase pain?
- What have you done for this sciatic nerve pain? Have you tried particular medications or exercises?
- Does anything reduce the pain or make it worse?
Your spine specialist will also perform physical and neurological exams.
In the physical exam, your doctor will observe your posture, range of motion, and physical condition, noting any movement that causes you pain. Your doctor will feel your spine, note its curvature and alignment, and feel for muscle spasm.
During the neurological exam, your spine specialist will test your reflexes, muscle strength, and other nerve changes.
To diagnose the cause of your sciatica, you may need to have some imaging tests. You may have an x-ray or a computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan. If it's possible you have a herniated disc or spinal stenosis that's causing your sciatica, your doctor may order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test.
Together, all these various exams and tests will give your doctor a more complete picture of your sciatic nerve pain. Using this information, he or she will most likely be able to make a diagnosis of the underlying cause of your sciatica.