Sciatica

Sciatica is when the sciatic nerve, which runs from your hips to your feet, is irritated. It usually gets better in 4 to 6 weeks but can last longer.

Check if you have sciatica

If you have sciatica, your:

  • bottom
  • backs of your legs
  • feet and toes

may feel:

  • painful – the pain may be stabbing, burning or shooting
  • tingling – like pins and needles
  • numb
  • weak

Your symptoms may be worse when moving, sneezing or coughing.

You may also have back pain, but this isn't usually as bad as the pain in your bottom, legs or feet.

You probably don't have sciatica if you only have back pain.

How you can ease the pain yourself

Sciatica usually gets better in 4 to 6 weeks but can sometimes last longer.

To help relieve your pain and speed up your recovery:

Do

  • carry on with your normal activities as much as possible
  • regular back stretches
  • start gentle exercise as soon as you can – anything that gets you moving can help
  • hold heat packs to the painful areas – you can buy these from pharmacies
  • ask your pharmacist about painkillers that can help

Don't

  • sit or lie down for long periods – even if moving hurts, it's not harmful and can help you get better faster
  • take paracetamol on its own – this doesn't help with back pain or sciatica
  • use hot water bottles to ease the pain – you could scald yourself if your skin is numb

See a GP if the pain:

  • hasn't improved after trying home treatments for a few weeks
  • is getting worse
  • is stopping you doing your normal activities

Go to A&E or call 999 if you:

  • have sudden weakness in both legs
  • have numbness or tingling around and under your genitals or inner thighs
  • suddenly can't pee, or can't control when you pee or poo

These could be symptoms of a serious back problem that needs to be treated in hospital as soon as possible.

Treatments from your GP

Your GP may:

  • suggest exercises and stretches
  • prescribe painkillers that help with nerve pain like sciatica

They might also refer you for:

  • physiotherapy – including exercise advice and techniques like massage (manual therapy)
  • psychological support – to help you cope with the pain

Physiotherapy from the NHS may not be available everywhere and waiting times can be long. You can also get it privately.

Injections and surgery for sciatica

If other treatments haven't helped or your pain is very bad, your GP may refer you to a hospital specialist for:

  • painkilling injections
  • surgery – an operation called decompression surgery can sometimes help relieve sciatica

How to stop sciatica coming back

To reduce the chances of getting sciatica again:

Do

Don't

  • smoke – smoking can increase your risk of getting sciatica

Causes of sciatica

Sciatica is due to something pressing or rubbing on the sciatic nerve.

Causes include:

  • a slipped disc (the most common cause) – when a soft cushion of tissue between the bones in your spine pushes out
  • spinal stenosis – narrowing of the part of your spine where nerves pass through
  • spondylolisthesis – when one of the bones in your spine slips out of position
  • a back injury

Call 111

If you can’t speak to your GP or don’t know what to do next.

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