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.


Symptoms

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 is not usually as bad as the pain in your bottom, legs or feet.

You probably do not have sciatica if you only have back pain.

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Things you can try

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 – paracetamol on its own is unlikely to relieve your pain

Don't

  • do not sit or lie down for long periods – even if moving hurts, it's not harmful and can help you get better faster
  • do not use hot water bottles to ease the pain – you could scald yourself if your skin is numb

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When to get medical help

See a GP if the pain:

  • has not 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 sciatica on both sides
  • have weakness or numbness in both legs that is severe or getting worse
  • have numbness around or under your genitals, or around your anus
  • find it hard to start peeing, cannot pee or cannot control when you pee – and this is not normal for you
  • do not notice when you need to poo or cannot control when you poo – and this is not normal for you

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

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Treatments from a GP

If you have sciatica, 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.

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Find a physiotherapist

Injections and surgery for sciatica

If other treatments have not 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

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Prevention

To reduce the chances of getting sciatica again:

Do

Don't

  • do not smoke – smoking can increase your risk of getting sciatica

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Causes

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

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Social care and support guide

If you:

  • need help with day-to-day living because of illness or disability
  • care for someone regularly because they're ill, elderly or disabled – including family members

Our guide to care and support explains your options and where you can get support.

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