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Q: What is sciatica?

If you feel pain that radiates down from your lower back through your hips, buttocks, and leg, it may be sciatica. Sciatica refers to symptoms caused by a pinching of the sciatic nerve, which runs from your lower back down your legs. It can cause pain, numbness, and tingling anywhere along the path of the nerve. The pain might feel like a dull ache, a burning sensation, or a shooting pain that comes suddenly like an electric shock. It usually only affects one side of the body.

The most common cause of sciatica is a herniated or slipped disc, which compresses one or more of the lumbar nerve roots that make up the sciatic nerve. People who sit for long periods of time are at greater risk of sciatica, and age, obesity, and diabetes also increase risk.

Mild sciatica often goes away on its own, or it can be treated through a combination of anti-inflammatory medicine and physical therapy. In severe cases, a doctor might recommend a series of anti-inflammatory injections into your lower back to reduce swelling. Surgery is also sometimes necessary for people whose sciatica does not respond to treatment and who are in severe pain.

While not all cases of sciatica can be prevented, you can reduce your risk by practicing safe lifting techniques, maintaining good posture to relieve pressure on your back, avoiding sitting for long periods, and exercising to strengthen your core muscles, and stopping smoking.

Christopher K. Taleghani, MD
Neurosurgeon