The nerve roots that exit the spine to form the sciatic nerve are extremely sensitive, and the inner portion of the disc that may herniate or extrude contains proteins that are inflammatory and easily irritate the nerve.
Therefore, if some of the inner portion of the disc (the nucleus) comes too close to the nerve, the nerve may be irritated and become inflamed, causing sciatic nerve pain.
Different Types of Sciatic Nerve Pain
There is a wide range of sciatica symptoms and the type and severity of pain depends on the condition causing the symptoms, as well as the individual patient’s experience of the pain.
The most common form of leg pain from the sciatic nerve is characterized by the following symptoms:
- Occurs in one leg (not both)
- Starts in the low back or buttock, and radiates down the back of the thigh and typically into the lower leg and/or the foot
- Is usually experienced as a sharp pain, as opposed to a throbbing or dull ache. Words people often use to describe sciatic nerve pain include burning, searing, sharp pain.
- Is usually worse when standing or sitting still, and feels better lying down or walking.
In addition to pain, other common symptoms include pressure, numbness, tingling, or a prickling sensation that radiates down the leg. Leg or foot weakness may also be present.
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When Sciatica Pain is a Medical Emergency
Most cases of sciatica are caused by a simple irritation to the nerve and will get better with time and nonsurgical care, such as exercise.
However, some sciatica symptoms may indicate a potentially serious injury to the sciatic nerve, including:
- If there is bowel or bladder incontinence (inability to control the bowel or bladder) and/or progressive weakness or loss of sensation in the legs, the condition may be serious and immediate medical attention should be sought.
- If weakness or numbness is present, the nerve may be damaged and it is important to seek attention from a health care professional. If the nerve is compressed and the pain and symptoms are severe, surgery may be warranted.
The Difference Between Sciatic Pain and Referred Pain
To clarify terminology, the term sciatica is often used to indicate any form of pain that radiates into the leg.
- If the sciatic nerve is pinched and the pain in the leg is from the nerve (radicular pain), then this is a correct use of the term sciatica.
- If the pain is referred to the leg from a joint (referred pain), then using the term sciatica is technically incorrect.
Referred pain from arthritis or other joint problems that may cause leg pain (which feels like sciatica) is actually more common than true sciatica.
- Read more in the Arthritis Health Center
Sciatica is actually a symptom, not a diagnosis. The term literally means that a patient has pain down the leg resulting from compression of the sciatic nerve. The diagnosis is what is causing the compression (e.g. a herniated disc).