Sciatica Nerve Pain Explained: Causes, Relief & Diagnosis

Sciatica is a term used to describe pain that radiates along the course of the sciatic nerve, the largest nerve in the body, which travels down the leg into the foot. It’s a symptom, not a diagnosis, which usually originates from low back problems including disc herniations, spondylolisthesis, and lumbar stenosis. 

Let’s delve deeper into sciatica, its causes, treatment options, and recent advancements.

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Symptoms Beyond Pain

Sciatica usually refers to leg pain but may also include other neurologic symptoms including: 

  • Numbness

This feels like a loss of feeling in your leg or foot. It might be like your foot “fell asleep” even when you’re wide awake. Imagine stepping on a cold tile with your sock off – that kind of numb feeling, but all the time! 

  • Tingling

Ever have that pins-and-needles sensation? Like ants are crawling all over your skin? That’s tingling, and it can happen with sciatica too. It’s a strange feeling that can be annoying and uncomfortable.

  • Weakness

Sometimes sciatica can make your leg muscles feel weak. This can make simple tasks like walking, climbing stairs, or even lifting a grocery bag feel difficult.  

It is often sudden in onset and often described as a sharp “knife-like” or a bad “cramping” pain.  The pain is typically worse with activities including bending, lifting, and coughing.

Causes: Unraveling the Source of Discomfort

Sciatic pain can be like a puzzle with a few different pieces. The most common cause of sciatic leg pain is from lumbar disc herniations which compress directly on nerve roots that later combine in the pelvis to form the sciatic nerve. 

Imagine a jelly donut – the soft center is the disc, and sometimes it can bulge out or even burst, pressing on the nerves nearby. Direct pressure and chemicals from the disc herniation inflame and irritate the nerve causing the nerve pain and associated symptoms. 

But that’s not the only puzzle piece. Sometimes, sciatica can be caused by other problems in your spine. Here are a couple of other reasons why you might experience sciatic nerve pain:

  • Spondylolisthesis: This tongue-twister of a word describes a condition where one of the bones in your spine (vertebrae) slips forward over the one below it. This slip can irritate the nerves in the area, including the sciatic nerve.
  • Stenosis: This means that the space in your spinal canal, which is the hollow area where your spinal cord runs through, narrows. When this happens, it can squeeze the nerves in the canal, again including the sciatic nerve, leading to pain.
  • Less commonly: neuropathies or pelvic lesions.

If you’re experiencing sciatic pain, it’s important to see a doctor to figure out the exact cause so you can get the right treatment.


Figuring out what’s causing your sciatica pain is like putting together a detective story. An experienced spine specialist will act as your detective. 

Here’s how they might diagnose sciatica:

  1. First, they’ll want to hear all about what’s been going on. This is called a detailed history, and it involves you telling them about your symptoms, how long they’ve lasted, and if anything seems to make the pain better or worse. They might also ask about your overall health and any past injuries you’ve had.
  1. Next comes the physical exam. This is where the detective gets hands-on! The doctor will check your range of motion, reflexes, and muscle strength, all while looking for signs that point to sciatica. They might also perform some special tests, like the straight leg raise test, to see if certain movements reproduce your pain.
  1. While the history and physical exam are important, sometimes the detective needs a closer look. This is where imaging studies come in. X-rays can give a general picture of your spine, but for a more detailed view, a CT scan or MRI might be ordered. These scans can show if there’s a disc herniation, spinal stenosis, or other problems that might be causing your sciatica.

By putting together the pieces from your history, physical exam, and imaging studies, your doctor can diagnose sciatica and figure out the underlying cause. This helps them create the best treatment plan to get you back on your feet and feeling better.

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Treatment:  Finding Relief

Most cases of sciatica resolve after a short period of non-operative treatment. Some common approaches include:

  • Rest: 

While taking a break from strenuous activities for a day or two can initially help reduce inflammation, staying in bed for too long can weaken your back muscles and prolong healing. Think of it like this: your back muscles are like the natural support system for your spine. If they get weak from inactivity, they can’t hold everything in place as well, which can worsen pain. 

  • Activity modification: 

This doesn’t mean you have to become a couch potato! It simply means being smart about the activities you choose. Avoid movements that aggravate your pain, like heavy lifting or bending over repeatedly. Instead, focus on gentle exercises like walking, swimming, or yoga that can help improve flexibility and strengthen your core muscles, which are crucial for good back health. 

  • Medications: 

Pain relievers like NSAIDs (ibuprofen, naproxen) can help manage pain and inflammation, allowing you to move more comfortably and participate in physical therapy exercises. In some cases, your doctor might also prescribe medication to help manage nerve pain specifically.

  • Physical Therapy: 

A physical therapist can be your partner in getting back on your feet (literally!). They’ll design a personalized exercise program to improve your flexibility, strengthen your core and back muscles, and teach you proper body mechanics to help prevent future flare-ups. They can also help you manage pain through techniques like massage or heat therapy.

  • Epidural steroid injections: 

In some cases, your doctor might recommend an epidural steroid injection. This involves injecting medication directly around the inflamed nerve root to reduce inflammation and pain. It’s like putting out a fire right at its source! While not a long-term solution, these injections can provide much-needed relief and allow you to participate in other treatments more comfortably.

The good news? The majority of patients (80-90%) usually improve within 4-12 weeks without significant limitations or disability.

When Surgery Becomes Necessary

Patients with severe pain or those with persistent pain despite 3 months of non-operative treatment may require surgery. Here’s a breakdown of some surgical options:

  • Microdiscectomy: 

This is a minimally invasive outpatient surgery often considered the “gold standard” for treating sciatica caused by a herniated disc. During a microdiscectomy, a small incision is made, and a microscope is used to visualize the affected area. The surgeon then carefully removes the portion of the disc material that’s pressing on the nerve root. This alleviates pressure and allows the nerve to heal. The benefit of minimally invasive techniques is that they typically involve smaller incisions, resulting in less muscle disruption, shorter hospital stays, and faster recovery times.

  • Laminectomy or fusion surgery: 

These procedures address other causes of sciatica, such as spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal) or spondylolisthesis (vertebral slippage). A laminectomy involves removing a small portion of the lamina, the bony roof of the spinal canal, to create more space for the nerves. Fusion surgery, on the other hand, aims to stabilize the spine by placing bone grafts or implants between vertebrae to prevent excessive movement. While these surgeries can be very effective, they are generally more invasive than a microdiscectomy and may involve longer recovery times.

  • Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery (MISS): 

This is a recent advancement that utilizes endoscopic techniques to perform spine surgery. Endoscopes are thin, lighted tubes with a camera that allow surgeons to visualize the surgical area through a small incision. MISS procedures offer several advantages, including minimal tissue disruption, faster recovery times, and often allow for outpatient surgery. However, it’s important to note that MISS might not be suitable for all cases of sciatica requiring surgery.

Remember, surgery is always a last resort, and the decision to operate should be made in consultation with your doctor after carefully weighing the risks and benefits. If you’re facing severe or persistent sciatica, discuss all your treatment options with your doctor to determine the best course of action for your specific situation.

What can I do to prevent sciatica?

While you can’t completely guarantee you’ll never get sciatica, there are ways to make it less likely. Things you can do is to focus on keeping your back strong and healthy. 

  • Exercises that target your core muscles, the ones in your stomach and lower back, can provide good support for your spine. 
  • Stretching, especially your hamstrings which run down the back of your thighs, can also help keep your back flexible. 
  • It’s important to maintain good posture when you’re sitting, standing, and even sleeping. This helps keep everything aligned and reduces stress on your spine. 
  • If you lift things often, be sure to use proper form to avoid straining your back. 
  • Finally, staying at a healthy weight can take pressure off your spine and make it less likely for problems to develop.
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Find Relief from Sciatica: Expert Spine Care in South Florida

Sciatica pain can be a real drag, but with proper diagnosis and treatment, you can get back to feeling your best. Dr. Matthew D. Hepler M.D., one of the best spine surgeons in South Florida, is an expert in diagnosing and treating all types of spinal conditions, including sciatica. He offers a variety of treatment options, from non-surgical therapies to minimally invasive surgery, to help you find lasting relief.  

If you’re experiencing sciatic nerve pain and are looking for an orthopedic spine surgeon in South Florida, come see us at one of our convenient locations near you:

Schedule a consultation today and get back on the road to a pain-free life!

The material contained on this site is for informational purposes only and DOES NOT CONSTITUTE THE PROVIDING OF MEDICAL ADVICE, and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgment, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your health.