Truth: The Sciatic Nerve Runs from the Low Back Down to the Toes

The sciatic nerve is located in front of the piriformis muscle (deep in the rear), including the lowest two nerves that exit from the lower spine (L4 and L5) and the first three sacral nerves (S1, S2 and S3).

Watch: Video: What Is Your Sciatic Nerve and Why Does It Hurt So Much?

Each of the nerves has two branches, one on each side of the spine. The root of each nerve exits the spine between two vertebra in the low back, travels down the back of each leg, and branches out to the leg and into each foot. The sciatic nerve is the largest single nerve in the human body.

See Sciatic Nerve and Sciatica

Sciatic pain that radiates along this nerve can be excruciating and debilitating for many patients.

Truth: Sciatica Leg Pain is Caused By a Problem in the Low Back

Patients often feel leg pain from sciatica, which leads them to believe that there is something wrong with their legs.

However, because the sciatic nerve extends through the low back, legs and feet, a problem causing nerve compression in the low back can cause low back pain and feelings of pain through the legs, feet and sometimes the toes.


Truth: The Causes of Sciatica Are Not Genetic

As explained above, sciatica is the result of a problem in the low back that can develop from aging or from a spinal injury. These conditions are not passed on genetically, as patients may mistakenly believe.

See Diagnosing the Cause of Sciatica

There is no truth to the idea that sciatica is handed down from generation to generation.

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Truth: Piriformis Syndrome Feels Like Sciatica, But It Isn’t the Same

Piriformis syndrome is a condition that is often confused with sciatica. When the piriformis muscle becomes tight, it can irritate the sciatic nerve. This causes sciatica-like pain, tingling and numbness that often run from the low back to the rear, down the leg and into the foot.

Although the discomfort from piriformis syndrome feels similar to sciatica, the two have different causes. With piriformis problems, the pain is not caused by a compressed nerve root where it exits the spine as occurs with true sciatica.

Correctly identifying the cause of the pain is important because the treatments for each type of pain tend to be very different.

See What Is Piriformis Syndrome?


Truth: Pain From Arthritis or Joint Problems Is Not True Sciatica

The pain from arthritis or other joint problems is actually more common than sciatica, and they are often confused. In reality, sciatica and arthritis are classified as different types of pain. Radicular pain like sciatica is caused by a pinched nerve.

In contrast, referred leg pain from arthritis is dull, achy and often moves around and varies in intensity. Although the leg pain from arthritis may feel similar, it is not truly sciatica. Distinguishing the correct problem is important because the treatments for each type of pain often differ.

Read more in the Arthritis Health Center