Sciatica is where the sciatic nerve, which runs from your lower back to your feet, is irritated or compressed. It usually gets better in 4 to 6 weeks but can last longer.
Check if you have sciatica
If you have sciatica, your:
- back of your leg
- foot and toes
- painful – the pain may be stabbing, burning or shooting
- tingling – like pins and needles
Your symptoms may be worse when moving, sneezing or coughing.
You may also have back pain, but it's not usually as bad as the pain in your bottom, leg or foot.
You probably do not have sciatica if you only have back pain.
How you can ease the pain yourself
Sciatica usually gets better in 4 to 6 weeks, but it can sometimes last longer.
To help relieve your pain and speed up recovery:
carry on with your normal activities as much as possible
regular exercises for sciatica
start gentle exercise as soon as you can – anything that gets you moving can help
hold heat packs to the painful areas – you can buy these from pharmacies
ask your pharmacist about painkillers (paracetamol is unlikely to help and it's not clear how much NSAIDs help with sciatica)
put a small, firm cushion between your knees when sleeping on your side, or several firm pillows underneath your knees when lying on your back
do not sit or lie down for long periods – even if moving hurts, it's not harmful and can help you get better faster
do not use hot water bottles to ease the pain – you could scald yourself if your skin is numb
Non-urgent advice: See a GP if the pain:
- has not improved after trying home treatments for a few weeks
- is getting worse
- is stopping you doing your normal activities
Immediate action required: Go to A&E or call 999 if you:
- have sciatica on both sides
- have weakness or numbness in both legs that's severe or getting worse
- have numbness around or under your genitals, or around your bottom (anus)
- find it hard to start peeing, cannot pee or cannot control when you pee – and this is not normal for you
- do not notice when you need to poo or cannot control when you poo – and this is not normal for you
These could be symptoms of a serious back problem that needs to be treated in hospital as soon as possible.
Treatments from a GP
If you have sciatica, a GP may:
- suggest exercises and stretches
- prescribe painkillers
They might also refer you for:
- physiotherapy – including exercise advice and techniques like massage (manual therapy)
- psychological support – to help you cope with the pain
Physiotherapy is free of charge on the NHS throughout the UK, but waiting times can be long. You can also get it privately.
Other treatments for sciatica
If your pain is severe and treatments from a GP have not helped, they may refer you to a hospital specialist for:
- painkilling injections
- a procedure to seal off some of the nerves in your back so they stop sending pain signals
- surgery – an operation called decompression surgery can sometimes help relieve sciatica
How to stop sciatica coming back
To reduce the chances of getting sciatica again:
stay active – take regular exercise
use a safe technique when lifting heavy objects
make sure you have a good posture when sitting and standing
sit correctly when using a computer
lose weight if you're overweight
do not smoke – smoking can increase your risk of getting sciatica
Causes of sciatica
Sciatica happens when something presses or rubs on the sciatic nerve.
- a slipped disc (the most common cause) – when a soft cushion of tissue between the bones in your spine pushes out
- spinal stenosis – narrowing of the part of your spine where nerves pass through
- spondylolisthesis – when one of the bones in your spine slips out of position
- a back injury
Page last reviewed: 8 September 2020
Next review due: 8 September 2023