The sciatica symptoms one feels—such as nerve pain, numbness, tingling, weakness—are highly variable: they can include symptoms primarily felt in the buttock, or in the back of the thigh down to the calf, or even into the toes.
Different Types of Pain Along the Sciatic Nerve
The patient’s pain and specific sciatica symptoms can usually be traced to where the injured/irritated nerve originates in the lower back. Typical symptoms include:
- Sciatica from L4 nerve root
Symptoms of sciatica stemming from this level, the L4-L5 level, in the lower spine may include pain and/or numbness to the middle of the lower leg and foot as well as weakness. The weakness may restrict the ability to lift the foot upwards (heel walk). The patient may also have reduced knee-jerk reflex.
- Sciatica from L5 nerve root
If the L5-S1 segment is affected, the patient may have weakness in extension of the big toe and potentially in the ankle (called foot drop). Symptoms of sciatica originating at this level of the lower back may include: pain and/or numbness at the top of the foot, particularly in the web between the great toe (big toe) and the second toe.
- Sciatica from S1 nerve root Symptoms of sciatica originating at the S1-S2 level, which is at the bottom of the spine, may include pain and/or numbness to the lateral, or outside, of the foot, as well as the bottom of the foot. Some people experience weakness that results in difficulty raising the heel off the ground or walking on the tiptoes. A person may also have reduced ankle-jerk reflex.
- Sciatica from S2 and S3 nerve roots
It is unusual for sciatica symptoms to originate at either the S2 or S3 nerve root. When this does happen, the symptoms typically include pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness in lower buttock, back of the thigh and the calves.
While the above types of symptoms are common, symptoms can vary depending on a number of factors, such as unique anatomical variances, and the degree and characteristics of the specific pathology.
Common Conditions that Lead to Sciatica
A variety of lower back conditions may lead to sciatica. Most commonly, a lumbar herniated disc will cause sciatic nerve pain. Other common disorders that cause sciatic pain include lumbar degenerative disc disease, spondylolisthesis, spinal stenosis, or osteophytes and arthritis in the spine.
Conditions with Sciatica-Like Symptoms
While it is most common for sciatica symptoms to be caused by a problem in the lower back, there are other conditions that may lead to sciatica-like symptoms.
- Pressure on the sacral nerve roots from sacroiliac joint dysfunction
Symptoms of sacroiliac joint dysfunction may include a sciatica-like pain or numbness that is often described as a deep ache felt inside the leg. This ache is typically diffuse, whereas true sciatica causes pain and numbness in a specific, linear area of the buttock, thigh, and leg.
- Pressure on the sciatic nerve from piriformis muscle
Tightness or spasms in the piriformis muscle can put pressure on the sciatic nerve, causing it to become irritated. This condition is called piriformis syndrome). Symptoms of piriformis syndrome may include a sciatica-like pain and/or numbness in the leg that is usually more intense above the knee. It usually starts in the buttock rather than the low back.
In addition, any change in the body, such as carrying extra weight while pregnant, can also lead to sciatica symptoms.
See Sciatica Causes
In This Article:
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.
For example, arthritis in the spine can cause changes in alignment that lead to pain felt in the buttock or leg. Referred pain from arthritis or other joint problems is actually more common than true sciatica.
There is a wide range of sciatica symptoms. The type and severity of pain depends on the condition causing the symptoms, as well as the individual patient’s experience of the pain.