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Sciatic nerve pain

Diagnosis of sciatic nerve pain

When you seek care for sciatica, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, as well as give you a physical exam.

During the exam, he or she may ask you to sit and lie down, walk, run, kick your legs in the air, and squat to provide more information about the root of the problem.

Since imaging tests tend to be less helpful when diagnosing sciatica, your doctor will likely look for other telltale signs, such as pain that gets worse when coughing or sitting. He or she may also check whether you have weakness or numbness that could indicate a more severe nerve pinch.

Your doctor may order an imaging test such as an x-ray, CT scan, or MRI scan, or a test of your electrical nerve signals called an EMG to confirm the diagnosis.


You can often find relief from sciatic nerve pain with hot and cold packs, over-the-counter pain medications, gentle stretches, and massage. Many cases of sciatic nerve pain go away with this treatment after a few days.

If those approaches don’t provide enough relief, your doctor at Dignity Health may also recommend:

  • Prescription medications such as muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatories, arthritis medications, or narcotics
  • Steroid injections to reduce inflammation around the nerve causing your pain
  • Physical therapy to correct your posture and strengthen the muscles of your core and prevent future injuries and pain
  • Surgery: typically only considered with severe nerve impingement lasting over six weeks or cases of nerve pain in combination with numbness, weakness, or loss of bladder control; surgical procedures can reduce nerve inflammation by removing bone spurs or other causes of sciatic nerve pain such as a herniated disc

Use our Find a Doctor tool to locate your nearest orthopedic specialist and schedule a consultation for sciatic nerve pain treatment.


Sciatica can occur suddenly (acute sciatica) or develop over time as a result of a chronic condition. The exact cause of your symptoms will affect how quickly you recover and can return to daily activities.

Once the initial pain diminishes, most people find relief by beginning to walk and move for short periods. Even if you have a herniated disc, the body can often reabsorb leaking fluid over time, reducing irritation of the sciatic nerve. 

Chronic cases of sciatic nerve pain may take more time and treatment, such as physical therapy or steroid injections.

Alternative pain management such as acupuncture, massage, and meditation have also been helpful for some patients experiencing sciatica.

The majority of cases dissipate on their own within a few weeks.

When to see your doctor for sciatic nerve pain

See your doctor for new or worsening symptoms of sciatica. Your doctor will advise you regarding whether your symptoms are likely to go away on their own or whether they require further treatment. 

Seek urgent (same-day) care for sciatica if you have:

  • Sudden or severe symptoms in both legs
  • Weakness in one or both legs, or difficulty standing or walking
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Numbness in the “saddle” area around the pelvis and lower abdomen
  • Deformity in your back or other signs of spinal injury
  • A recent trauma such as a fall or car crash

Dignity Health offers specialized orthopedic services, including treatment for sciatica. Contact your doctor or Find a Doctor today.

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