Sciatica is leg pain caused by a pinched nerve in the lower back. Although the pangs begin in nerve roots located on either side of the lower spine, they then course through the sciatic nerve, which runs the length of each leg from the buttock down to the foot.
The leg agony, called radiculopathy, “is often worse than the back pain,” says William A. Abdu, MD, medical director of the Spine Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Usually felt in one leg, the sensation “can be intolerable,” says Birgit Ruppert, a physical therapist at the Spine Center. “Some people liken it to the nerve pain you experience if you have a toothache.”
Why it happens
The most common cause is a herniated disk: When a disk develops a tear or crack and bulges into the spinal canal, it can pinch the sciatic nerve. Usually symptoms clear up within about 6 weeks, but for some people, the pain can last.
Additional common causes of sciatica include:
– Lumbar spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back)
– Degenerative disc disease (breakdown of discs, which act as cushions between the vertebrae)
– Spondylolisthesis (a condition in which one vertebra slips forward over another one)
Other things that may make your back pain worse include being overweight, not exercising regularly, wearing high heels, or sleeping on a mattress that is too soft.