7 Sciatica Symptoms Anyone with Back Pain Should Know

Updated: Mar. 02, 2021

A whopping 40 percent of people will suffer from sciatica in their lifetime. Here’s how to know when it’s the cause of your back pain.


The pain radiates down your leg

“By strict definition, sciatica refers to pain produced by damage to, pressure on, or inflammation of the sciatic nerve,” says Robert Gotlin, DO, a sports and spine physician in NYC and an associate professor of rehabilitation medicine and orthopedics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. This nerve, the longest and widest in the body, runs from the lower back, travels deep into the buttocks, down the back of each leg, to the soles of the feet and the big toes. However, according to Dr. Gotlin, the term sciatica has become synonymous with the presence of any pain that originates in the lower back or buttock and then travels to the thigh, leg, or foot. Learn more about the different kinds of leg pain and which ones are serious.


The pain feels like a burning or electrical sensation

“Nerves are very similar to electrical circuits, and the sensation from sciatica is similar to what happens if you touch a live electrical wire,” explains Dr. Gotlin. The pain from sciatica symptoms can be so intense that it’s tough to walk or stand. Less often the pain feels like a dull sensation. “It depends on how much damage there is to the sciatic nerve,” says Dr. Gotlin.  Here are other possible causes of your back pain.

iStock/Jan Otto

The pain is on one side

Typically sciatica occurs only in one leg, but depending on where the nerve is injured, sciatica symptoms can affect both limbs. For instance, if it’s in the spine, the pain can travel into both legs. If the injury is only on one side of the spine or in the buttocks or leg itself, the pain is usually on just one side.  (Learn how this woman treated her sciatica pain naturally.)

iStock/Willie-B. Thomas

The pain gets worse when you sneeze, cough, or laugh

Anything that increases pressure on the sciatic nerve—even the littlest moves—can exacerbate the pain. Sitting for long periods of time and straining during a bowel movement also usually put pressure on the nerve and worsen pain. These are signs you need to move more.


You have spinal stenosis

Natural wear and tear of the vertebrae is the main cause of a narrowing of the spinal canal called spinal stenosis. This compression, which is most common in adults over age 50, can put pressure on the sciatic nerves. With spinal stenosis, symptoms are usually present or will worsen only when you’re standing or walking. In fact, symptoms will often ease or disappear when you’re sitting or lying down or leaning forward, as these positions may create more space in the spinal canal and relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve. Here’s what else could be causing your lower back and hip pain.


You carry your wallet in your back pocket

Piriformis syndrome occurs when an object like a wallet or phone pinches the piriformis muscle, a narrow muscle located deep in the buttocks. This muscle is connected to the sciatic nerve, and over time, the compression of the nerve can lead to sciatica symptoms. Learn how to get rid of sciatica pain once and for all.

iStock/Pamela Moore

You have a ruptured disc

While typically referred to as a condition, sciatica is actually a symptom of pressure or injury of the sciatic nerve. The most common cause—occurring in 90 percent of cases—is a rupture in one or more of the discs that cushion the 26 bones of the spine. These discs get weaker as you age and become more vulnerable to injury; sometimes their jelly-like center pushes through its outer lining and presses on the sciatic nerve. About one in 50 people will get a ruptured (or herniated) disc at some point in their life. Learn how this woman with a herniated disc healed with mind-body exercises.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest