Sciatica Symptoms

Sciatica is among the most recognizable—and possibly feared—spinal disorders because of the symptoms it produces. Also known as lumbar radiculopathy, sciatica’s telltale signs include numbness, muscle weakness, burning, and electric shock-like nerve pain that radiates from the low back down the leg.

Though many people associate sciatica with debilitating low back and leg pain, symptoms vary. In fact, some people experience a mild degree of pain. Regardless if your sciatica symptoms linger or are impossible to ignore, you have several options to get relief. Here, you’ll learn the most common symptoms of sciatica and connect to resources about proven treatments.
Illustration of a woman with sciatica, highlighting areas of pain.Sciatica is characterized by low back pain that radiates downward into one leg. Photo Source: 123RF.com.

Can Sciatica Have Symptoms if It’s Not a Disease?

You may have heard that sciatica isn’t a spinal disorder. That’s true. Sciatica is actually a symptom caused by lumbar radiculopathy. Lumbar radiculopathy is a medical term that refers to a lumbar spine (low back) disorder that affects the nerves in the low back. Among the most common low back conditions that produces lumbar radiculopathy and sciatica is a lumbar herniated disc. When a herniated disc, or other low back spinal disorder, compresses or irritates one of the spinal nerves that makes up the sciatic nerve in the leg, that’s when you feel sciatica.

Though sciatica isn’t technically a designated spinal disorder, anyone who’s experienced it will attest that it produces its own unique set of symptoms.

The sciatic nerve is the longest and thickest nerve in the body. It is made up of the majority of the spinal nerves from the low back. It runs from both sides of the lumbar spine, down into the buttocks, thighs, and ends in the feet. Although the sciatic nerve runs down both legs, usually only one leg is affected by sciatica.

Less commonly the sciatic nerve itself can be compressed or pinched, and pain can radiate through the full length of the nerve, causing pain throughout much of the lower body.

Burning, Tingling, Radiating Pain: The Symptoms of Sciatica

Because sciatica develops due to compression of the spinal nerves, it produces nerve-related pain. Nerve-related pain is different than muscle pain, for instance, because it produces abnormal sensations, like burning, weakness, tingling, and numbness. And nerve pain radiates down the path of the nerve, so the pain doesn’t necessarily stay in one place.

Since the sciatic nerve runs from the low back down the leg, that’s where people feel pain. Below are common symptoms of sciatica:

  • Low back and leg pain that may range from mild to debilitating (leg pain is the primary symptom; low back pain is secondary)
  • Nerve-related symptoms in the lower body, including numbness, tingling, shooting pain, pins-and-needles sensation, and/or muscle weakness
  • Pain may be sharp or cramp-like, or radiate from the low back down the buttock, back of the thigh, down the back of the leg, and to the feet/toes
  • Hip pain
  • Leg or foot weakness
  • Low back and leg pain on one side of the body
  • Moving the affected leg or area worsens pain, other sharp or sudden movements (eg, sneezing) can increase pain

The most severe cases of sciatica may lead to bowel and/or bladder dysfunction. If you have problems or changes affecting your bowels and/or bladder, call your doctor immediately, as this symptom may warrant immediate medical care to prevent permanent nerve damage.

Sciatica Symptoms During Pregnancy

Pregnant women are at a heightened risk of developing the painful low back and leg nerve pain of sciatica.

Sciatica during pregnancy produces the same symptoms as it would in a non-pregnant person: burning, radiating leg and low back pain, numbness, and weakness. However, symptoms and their severity vary from person to person based on the level of compression on the sciatic nerve.

Why are pregnant women more susceptible to sciatica? It’s because they undergo a myriad of physical and hormonal changes that up their risk.

These changes include:

  • Increased weight gain: A growing belly and expanding uterus may put pressure on the sciatic nerve, inflaming it and causing pain. Additional weight also stresses your intervertebral discs, and herniated discs are a common cause of sciatica symptoms.
  • Hormones relax ligaments: During pregnancy, the body produces a hormone called relaxin that loosens ligaments in preparation for childbirth, including those in your pelvis and low back. Without strong ligaments and joints for support, this may make the spinal discs more likely to bulge or herniate.
  • As well, the pregnant uterus can press on the sciatic nerve in the pelvis.

Despite the physical and hormonal factors working against them, not every woman will develop sciatica during her pregnancy. Moreover, women who develop sciatica during their pregnancies should see their pain subside once their bodies return to their pre-pregnancy state.

What You Can Do About Your Sciatica Symptoms

Sciatica often produces symptoms of severe nerve pain from the low back down through the legs, but surprisingly, many cases go away on their own or subside with at-home remedies. However, you should call your doctor if your symptoms are worsening or if your nerve pain is severe (this is especially important if you lose bowel or bladder control, which warrants emergency medical care).

Your doctor will create a treatment plan to help ease your sciatic nerve pain. In most cases, this plan will include conservative, non-surgical treatments, like physical therapy and exercise. Spine surgery to treat sciatica is rarely necessary. And once you ease your sciatica pain, your doctor can show you ways to prevent the low back and leg pain from returning.

Updated on: 12/11/18
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Is Sciatica a Symptom or a Spinal Disorder?
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Is Sciatica a Symptom or a Spinal Disorder?

Sciatica is a symptom of sciatic nerve compression often caused by a bulging or herniated disc in the low back. Leg pain is the hallmark of a sciatic nerve compression disorder.
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