Sciatica isn’t a medical condition in its own right but rather a symptom of a larger problem. It refers to pain, weakness or numbness in one or both legs that can result from multiple causes.
However, it can have disruptive effects on your ability to manage daily living tasks. How do you know when it’s time to see the doctor? Here are five signs you may have sciatica and the factors within your control that put you at risk.
1. Numbness and Tingling in the Lower Extremities
Sciatica results when your sciatic nerve, which runs down your lower back and leg, becomes pinched or injured. This symptom usually affects only one side but can impact both in rare cases. It can feel like when your foot or leg goes to sleep, but it can occur during various activities where you wouldn’t usually impede blood flow, such as when walking or standing in certain positions.
Sometimes, the numbness and tingling only extend into one buttock or upper leg. Other times, it can travel down your leg, causing you trouble standing.
Some numbness and tingling are common, but more severe issues constitute a medical emergency. For example, you should seek immediate care if you experience bowel or bladder control problems, as this can indicate the need for surgery to prevent permanent damage.
2. 1-Sided Aching and Burning in One Glute or Leg
Sciatica pain typically occurs on one side of the body. Since your sciatic nerve originates in your butt or gluteal area, you’ll usually feel it shoot down the back of this muscle and your leg. In some cases, it extends to your calf.
Some people refer to this sensation as a dull ache. Others find it more like a burning sensation, particularly when they shift positions. The damage to your sciatic nerve could be more severe if you feel shooting pains when you rise to stand. It could feel like a jolt or electric shock when you sneeze or cough.
3. Lower Back Pain
The pain from sciatica often radiates into your lower back. It typically feels like a dull ache in this area.
This symptom can also arise from other factors, such as an ill-fitting office chair. If your symptoms go on more than a week or two, see your doctor for an evaluation.
4. Pain That Increases After Sitting or Standing
Here’s another sign that can indicate sciatica — or something else. Pain that increases after sitting or standing in a fixed position is also a hallmark of degenerative disk disease, which can increase sciatic nerve pain if it occurs in the lumbar spine.
The only way to tell for sure is to schedule a CT scan or MRI of your lower back. In most cases, your doctor will order the tests and send you to an outpatient imaging center. They’ll then schedule a follow-up visit to discuss results.
5. Weakness in the Leg or Foot
Finally, weakness in the leg or foot can indicate sciatica. This sign may or may not occur with the thunderbolt pain some sufferers experience when they shift position. However, you may find it difficult to stand up from a seated position, and your feet may fall asleep even if you are walking or engaged in other activities that promote, not hinder circulation.
Risk Factors for Sciatica
Some people run a higher risk of sciatica than others. Consider this a possible cause if any of the following six risk factors apply to you.
1. Physical Jobs
Performing physical labor puts you at increased risk for sciatica. You’re more likely to have slip-and-fall accidents that damage the sciatic nerve. Repetitive motion injuries can likewise cause excess strain on this area.
Car crashes and sports injuries can result in permanent nerve damage. If such an incident impacts your sciatic nerve, you could experience ongoing problems.
3. Excessive Drinking and Smoking
Drinking and smoking increases your diabetes risk. When your body can no longer regulate your blood sugar, various injuries can occur, including permanent nerve damage.
4. Poor Lifting Form
Do you live to hit the gym? Performing moves with too-heavy weights or improper form can cause nerve damage and sciatica.
5. Sitting for Extended Periods
The piriformis muscle in your buttock surrounds your sciatic nerve. If you sit for prolonged periods, you put excess pressure on this delicate tissue, increasing your sciatica risk.
6. Carrying Too Much Weight
Obesity increases multiple health risks — including sciatica. Carrying too much weight causes your center of balance to shift, resulting in movements that up your chances of nerve damage.
Signs You May Have Sciatica
Sciatica may not be a medical condition in its own right, but it can still cause considerable disability. Heed these five signs and discuss your options with your physician if you think it affects you.