Sciatica pain is a symptom that signals an underlying medical issue. It often shows up as:
- A sharp or electric-shock sensation that runs down one side of your body, down your buttock, behind your thigh and calf;
- Weakness or numbness in your leg, foot, or toes; and/or
- Pain that worsens when you transition from a seated position to standing and/or walking.
What’s causing your sciatica? One of these 3 problems might be the culprit:
1. Herniated disc
A herniated disc in the lumbar spine, sometimes called a slipped disc or bulging disc, is a common cause of sciatica pain.
A disc acts as a cushion between your vertebrae. A herniation occurs when a disc’s tough exterior breaks and its gelatinous inner contents (nucleus pulposus) leak out. Sometimes this material gets into the space that is only supposed to be occupied by nerves. When it pushes against your nerves, inflammation—and pain—occurs.
Though sciatica pain from a herniated disc may feel sudden, it typically is the result of gradual wearing-down of your disc from daily repetitive movements and not necessarily triggered by a specific trauma. However, an accident or sudden injury—caused by lifting furniture or shoveling snow, for example—is enough to herniate a disc. Not everyone who has a lumbar herniated disc experiences symptoms.
Spondylolisthesis is often the source of sciatica pain. It occurs when one vertebra slips forward over the vertebra directly underneath it. This slippage may happen because of a fracture or other spinal instability.
Spondylolisthesis can be caused by a sudden event, such as a fall or some other accident, but in most cases, it occurs gradually from cumulative stress as the joints in your spine degenerate over time.
The majority of people who have spondylolisthesis don’t show symptoms. People who do experience symptoms often report a sharp or burning pain that radiates down their buttocks and legs, and their legs may feel tired and/or tingly. Sitting in a reclining position often helps ease the pain from spondylolisthesis.
3. Spinal stenosis
Spinal stenosis is another possible suspect for what’s causing your sciatica pain. This condition involves the narrowing of the spaces in your spine that nerves travel through. If these spaces get too cramped, they put pressure on your nerves, triggering sciatica pain.
People with spinal stenosis are typically comfortable when they rest but cannot walk far without developing leg pain. Pain relief is achieved, sometimes immediately, when they sit down again.
Spinal stenosis can occur in either the cervical or lumbar spine. Only lumbar spinal stenosis is responsible for sciatica pain. This condition is related to the degeneration of the spine, so it’s more commonly found in people who are middle-aged or older.
This list isn’t exhaustive; several underlying conditions can cause sciatic and sciatica-like pain. To find a treatment that’s effective for you, talk to a doctor for a clinical diagnosis.