Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

Sciatica can lead to pain in the back and legs.

Sciatica can lead to pain in the back and legs.
beginning of content

Sciatica

3-minute read

Sciatica is a condition that can lead to pain in the back and legs.

It occurs when pain travels along the path of the sciatic nerve. This nerve starts in your lower spine, and travels through your hip and buttock and down the back of your leg to your foot.

There are a range of different causes of sciatica. In most cases, the condition gets better over time, either on its own or with treatment.

Causes of sciatica

The causes of sciatica include spinal injury or trauma, bone spurs or other growths, narrowing of the spinal canal, or tight or swollen muscles in the buttock. In many cases, people can’t pinpoint a specific injury that caused the condition.

Risk factors for sciatica include:

  • age-related changes to the spine
  • obesity, which can put extra pressure on the spine
  • occupations where you twist the spine or pick up heavy loads
  • prolonged sitting
  • diabetes, which can increase the risk of nerve damage

Sciatica symptoms

Symptoms of sciatica can include pain, tingling and numbness in the leg.

Sciatica is felt as nerve pain radiating from the buttock down the back of the leg, often when sitting, sneezing, coughing or going to the toilet. You may also feel lower back pain, and/or tingling, pins and needles, numbness or weakness in your leg.

Although sciatica pain can be severe, most people find their symptoms improve in time. As sciatica is seen as a more serious low back condition, it’s advisable to see your doctor within the first few days of getting the symptoms. To diagnose sciatica, the doctor will take a medical history and examine your spine and legs.

You should seek medical attention immediately if you have problems controlling your bladder or bowels, or have weakness, numbness or severe pain.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists recommends that an x-ray or other imaging in response to low back pain is only needed if you have other significant symptoms as mentioned above. For further information, visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.

Sciatica treatment

Sciatica therapies can include drug treatment, lifestyle changes or surgery.

The choice of sciatica therapies depends on the length of symptoms and severity of your condition. These therapies include:

  • special back care education
  • rest
  • physical therapies
  • drug treatment
  • lifestyle changes
  • surgery

Mild sciatic usually goes away in time. When you first experience sciatica, one or two days’ bed rest may be needed. However, it's important to return to activity as soon as possible, to help your spine stay strong.

Sciatica treatment includes analgesics such as paracetamol, anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and physiotherapy. Most people with sciatica get better with conservative treatments such as physiotherapy.

You should see your doctor again self-care measures fail to improve your pain, if your pain lasts longer than a week, is severe or becomes progressively worse.

If your symptoms persist, an injection of anaesthetic into the spine may be needed or, in rare cases, surgery.

Preventing sciatica

Looking after your back, managing your weight, and improving your general physical condition can all help prevent sciatica. Doing physical therapy at home, such as muscle strengthening exercise, can help to prevent sciatica coming back.

Last reviewed: August 2018

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Sciatica: treatment - myDr.com.au

Most sciatica gets better within a few weeks. If not, there are treatments that may help relieve your sciatica pain.

Read more on myDr website

Sciatica - Better Health Channel

Most cases of sciatica resolve by themselves within six weeks to three months.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Sciatica: symptoms, causes and diagnosis - myDr.com.au

Sciatica is characterised by pain deep in the buttock often radiating down the back of the leg. One of the most common causes is a herniated disc.

Read more on myDr website

Sciatica (nerve pain) information | myVMC

Sciatica is pain caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve. It may occur anywhere between the lower back to the foot, and affects up to 10% of mid-age adults.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Piriformis syndrome - myDr.com.au

Piriformis syndrome involves the piriformis muscle of the buttock compressing and irritating the sciatic nerve.

Read more on myDr website

Managing low back pain and sciatica :: SA Health

Simple advice on managing low back pain or sciatica to assist your recovery

Read more on SA Health website

Spinal cord stimulation (back pain treatment) video | myVMC

Spinal cord stimulation is a treatment that involves implanting a spinal cord stimulator. It is an advanced pain treatment for sciatica and back pain.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Low back pain :: SA Health

Low back pain - managing pain, facts about sciatica and advice on diagnostic scans and when you should see your doctor

Read more on SA Health website

Experiences of pregnancy

The parents we spoke with found pregnancy life-changing and exciting, and described at length its physical and emotional dimensions.

Read more on Healthtalk Australia website

Spinal cord (spinal column) anatomy information| myVMC

The spinal cord connects the brain to the body. It includes the thoracic, lumbar and cervical sections, and is part of the central nervous system (CNS).

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo