What Is Sciatica?

What is Sciatica?

The sciatic nerve is the body's largest nerve. It starts in the lower back (lumbar spine) and runs through the buttocks, the back of the leg, and into the foot. The nerve controls muscles in the back of your thigh and lower leg and provides feeling to the back of your thigh, part of your lower leg, and the foot. There are two sciatic nerves—one on the right and another on the left. 

When one of the roots of the sciatic nerve is compressed at the point where it exits the spinal cord, it can become inflamed and cause pain that radiates all the way down to the foot. This pain is called radiculopathy, more commonly known as "sciatica." It is one of the most common back ailments among people in the United States.

Diagram of Sciatica

What Causes Sciatica?


Sciatica is often caused by a herniated disc whose contents put pressure on the root of the sciatic nerve. Other causes may include:

  • Spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal
  • Bone spurs or cysts, which can press on the nerve
  • Piriformis syndrome, or entrapment of the nerve by muscle and connective tissue in the buttocks

Other risk factors for sciatica include:

  • Obesity, because the weight puts more stress on the lower back
  • Poor posture
  • Sitting most of the day in a position where the back is not properly supported
  • Pregnancy, since the weight of the baby can put extra stress on the hip joints and sciatic nerve

What causes sciatica to flare up?

Sciatica symptoms may worsen if the muscles in your lower back, hips, and legs become tight or if the cause of sciatica—such as a herniated disc, spinal stenosis, or bone spurs—remains untreated. You may experience a flare-up if you do not maintain good posture, sit too long, gain weight, or become pregnant.

Symptoms of Sciatica


What does sciatica feel like? Many people use words such as "burning" and "tingling" to describe sciatic pain. This kind of pain feels different from dull achy muscle pain because it can be sharp and stinging. You can feel it radiating from your lower back all the way down to your toes.

Sciatica symptoms in the legs and feet

As the sciatic nerve travels into the leg, you may feel:

  • Burning pain that radiates into the leg and foot
  • Weakness, numbness, or difficulty moving the leg, foot, and/or toes
  • Sharp pain that may make it difficult to stand up or walk
  • "Foot drop," the inability to bend the foot upwards at the ankle

Sciatica symptoms in the hips

Because the sciatic nerve extends through the buttocks, you may experience:

  • Pain in the buttocks that is worse when sitting
  • Weakness in the hip muscles that may make it harder to walk or stand up

Sciatica in the buttocks 

Pain in the buttocks is a common complaint from people with sciatica because the inflamed sciatic nerve travels through the strong gluteal muscles and may be compressed. You may feel:

  • Sharp pain that radiates from the buttocks into the leg and may be worse when sitting
  • Weakness in the buttock muscles

What Happens if Sciatica Is Left Untreated?

If Left Untreated

Sciatic pain can vary from infrequent and irritating to constant and incapacitating. Your symptoms could worsen if caused by a herniated disc, spinal stenosis, or bone spurs that have not been treated. Acute sciatica may go away on its own after a few weeks. Treating chronic sciatica and its causes can help you gain relief. A visit to a spine specialist can help you learn what is causing your symptoms and what is recommended to relieve them, especially if your symptoms are not going away or are getting worse. You should see a doctor as soon as possible if you experience:

  • Loss of bladder or bowel function
  • Trouble walking or balancing
  • Severe pain that keeps you from doing regular activities
Get Care

Find Treatment for Sciatica at Och Spine at NewYork-Presbyterian

If sciatica is causing you pain, impairing your movement, and keeping you from participating in your usual activities, it may be time to see a physician.

Och Spine has spine care experts who understand how painful sciatica can be and what can be done to relieve that discomfort. When you come to us for care, we'll assess your symptoms, determine their cause, and put together a plan of care to help you feel better. 

Every doctor at Och Spine has experience in various back and neck conditions and injuries. When you call us to make an appointment, we will work with you to identify the best physician for your specific need.

Contact us today to make an appointment.