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Sciatic nerve pain

Overview of sciatic nerve pain

Also called sciatica, sciatic nerve pain is pain or discomfort that starts in the lower back and shoots down the back of one leg. Sciatic back pain may travel down to the foot and toes, and it can feel like a cramp or sharp, searing jolt of pain.

If you have back or sciatic nerve pain, Dignity Health offers several treatment options to regain your mobility and comfort level.


Sciatic nerve pain tends to occur after a sudden or sharp movement like sneezing, coughing, or sitting down. The pain is usually far worse in the leg than the lower back. Usually, only one side of the body or leg is affected.

You may also notice the following symptoms with sciatica:

  • Leg or foot weakness
  • Tingling or “pins and needles” sensation in the leg or foot
  • Burning sensation
  • Numbness


A herniated disc or “slipped disc” in the lower back is the most common cause of sciatic nerve pain.

Discs are round cushions between each vertebra of the spine. A herniated disc occurs when the soft center of the disc leaks out of its casing and pushes against or squeezes through the thick outer ring.

When a slipped disc occurs in the lower, or lumbar, region of the spine, it can put pressure on the large sciatic nerve that runs down through the pelvis and into the legs. Compression irritates the nerve, causing lower back and leg pain that can feel like spasms or sharp pain.

Other conditions that can put pressure on the sciatic nerve and cause sciatica include:

  • Spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal
  • Spondylolisthesis, a dislocation of the vertebrae
  • Tumors
  • Bone spurs
  • Muscle spasms in the buttocks

Risk factors

Some factors that can increase the likelihood of sciatic nerve pain include:

  • Age. Your spinal discs tend to become harder, drier, and more brittle with age. This can increase the possibility of a herniated disc as well as other conditions like osteoarthritis.
  • Occupations in which you sit for long periods or engage in repeating bending motions.
  • Diabetes.
  • Being overweight or obese.


Preventing sciatic nerve pain primarily involves limiting your risk factors, for example by:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Completing regular exercise and making sure to strengthen the muscles in the core and back
  • Avoiding sitting for long periods
  • Using proper ergonomic setup when working

Relying on proper body mechanics and form when weightlifting or engaging in other activities that may be hard on the back can also reduce the likelihood of new or recurring sciatic nerve irritation. For example, people who have to stand for long periods of time can periodically alleviate pressure by elevating one foot with a step.

When lifting heavy objects, make sure to keep the weight close to your body, keep your back flat, use your legs as much as possible, and avoid twisting.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.