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What is sciatica?

Sciatica is a common back problem. Fortunately, nonsurgical treatments can usually ease the pain.

A sharp pain in your lower back or hip that shoots down one leg: This is a telltale sign of sciatica. It's a problem that affects about 1% to 2% of all people, the North American Spine Society reports.

How it happens

Sciatica occurs when a disk in the spine herniates (protrudes) and presses against the sciatic nerve of the back.

The resulting pain may be strongest when you sit, sneeze or cough, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). You also may have weakness, numbness, burning or a pins-and-needles feeling down your leg.

In rare cases, a herniated disk may press on nerves and cause you to lose control of your bowel or bladder. This is an emergency requiring surgery. Call for medical help right away if it occurs.

Who is at risk?

Sciatica is most common in people ages 30 to 50 and usually results from general wear and tear on the spine, according to the AAOS. However, sudden pressure on the disks in the lower spine can also cause sciatica.


A physician can confirm sciatica with imaging tests, such as an x-ray or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

In 80% to 90% of people, sciatica goes away without surgery, according to the AAOS. A doctor may advise a few days' bed rest and ibuprofen, aspirin or muscle relaxants to relieve pain.

After a few days of rest, it's good to start exercising. Walking and stretching can help.

If you still have disabling leg pain after three months, surgery to remove part of the herniated disk may be necessary.

After surgery you'll need to avoid driving, heavy lifting and lengthy sitting for at least a month. And you'll be advised how to do exercises to strengthen your back.

Get help

See your doctor if you notice signs of sciatica. He or she can check for the condition and provide treatment to relieve the pain.

Reviewed 4/22/2023

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