What is sciatica?

Sciatica is a term that many people have heard of or even been diagnosed with – but what actually is it and are these diagnoses correct?

Firstly sciatica is actually a symptom rather than a diagnosis, in the same way that a runny nose is a symptom of a cold. It’s something that manifests itself as pain in the legs, buttocks or the lower back.


Sciatica is the symptom of irritation of the sciatic nerve, the longest in the body. It runs from the lower back and pelvis down the back of the thigh before branching off into multiple other nerves all the way down to the feet.

The pain suffered can be anything from a dull ache through to severe shooting pains – potentially made worse by bending, coughing or sneezing and by sitting still for long periods of time.

The Cause

The sciatic nerve can become irritated due to inflammation elsewhere, from joints or discs in the lower back or from a hip stabiliser muscle called piriformis. In some cases it can also be referred from the sacroiliac joint (where the pelvis meets the spinal column).

The Solution

Successful treatment hinges on an accurate diagnosis – while painkillers or anti-inflammatories can help manage the pain and might give the impression of progress, it’s vital to identify the source of the problem.

In some cases the pain may ease over time, but more often than not it’s worth speaking to your physio to help work out what’s causing sciatica in the first place. Once the cause has been identified, a treatment plan can be put in place and a rapid improvement is not uncommon within a week or two (although full recovery can take a few months if there is a more severe underlying problem). As always, the sooner you get it seen to, the quicker your recovery will be.

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