Sciatica is the term used to describe what happens when the sciatic nerve in your body – which runs from your lower back to your feet – becomes irritated or inflamed. According to the NHS, around one in 20 people with lower back pain in the UK will be affected by sciatica at some point in their lives.

While a sciatica flare-up often lasts no longer than six weeks, it can cause pain, discomfort, and impact quality of life. However, the good news is that there are things you can do to help manage symptoms and reduce your risk.

With that said, we’ll explore exactly what sciatica is and what can cause it – and offer steps to reduce your risk or prevent flare-ups.

What is sciatica?

What is Sciatica?

The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in the human body, running from the lower back, through the buttocks, down the leg, and ending just below the knee. It then branches into other nerves which continue down to the toes. It controls several muscles in the lower legs and is responsible for supplying sensations to the skin of the foot and most of the lower leg.

Sciatica is a term used to describe irritation, inflammation, or compression of the sciatic nerve. It’s often confused with general back pain, but the two differ because sciatica isn’t limited to the back area.

Sciatica isn’t a condition in itself. Instead, it’s a symptom of various other conditions that can affect the sciatic nerve, including slipped spinal discs and obesity.

Symptoms of sciatica often improve within four to six weeks without treatment. However, in some cases, it can last longer.

For more information on what sciatica is, have a watch of this video on the NHS website.

What are the symptoms of sciatica?

What are the symptoms of sciatica

The main symptom of sciatica is experiencing shooting pains anywhere along the sciatic nerve – for example, in the lower back, buttocks, or down the back of either leg.

Other symptoms can include numbness, weakness, and pins and needles in the feet, toes, or leg.

Pain and discomfort can range from mild to severe and is often aggravated by sneezing, coughing, or sitting down for long periods.

Some people also experience back pain, but this isn’t usually as severe as the pain felt in the buttocks, leg, or foot. If you have back pain only, it’s unlikely that you have sciatica.

What can cause sciatica?

As we’ve said, sciatica is not a condition itself but a common symptom of several medical conditions that can affect the sciatic nerve.

It occurs when something presses or rubs on the sciatic nerve. Causes can include…

  • A slipped disk in the spine – where a soft cushion of tissue between the bones in your spine bulges out.
  • Spondylolisthesis – when one of the bones in the spine slips out of position.
  • Spinal stenosis – which happens when the part of the spine where nerves pass through becomes too narrow.
  • Back injuries – such as a pelvic fracture.

Experts estimate that around 90% of cases result from a slipped disk in the spinal column.

There are also a number of risk factors for sciatica which can increase a person’s chance of being affected. These include…


Research shows that a person’s risk of developing sciatica increases between the ages of 30 to 50.

This is due to age-related changes in the spine – including bone spurs and herniated disks – and natural age-related degeneration of bones, nerves, and muscles, which can increase the risk of inflammation.

Sedentary lifestyles

Sitting for prolonged periods of time or having a sedentary lifestyle can increase the risk of sciatica. The same goes for lifting or carrying heavy objects.


Being overweight places stress on the spine, which may lead to spinal changes that can trigger the onset of sciatica. Spinal compression can irritate the surrounding nerves.

Research also suggests that if you’re overweight, recovering from sciatica can take longer.

How is sciatica diagnosed?

If you suspect you have sciatica, it’s important to book an appointment with your GP. They’ll usually diagnose sciatica by discussing your medical history and symptoms, and giving you a simple physical examination.

MRI scans aren’t usually required to diagnose sciatica, but may be necessary in some cases. For example, if symptoms aren’t improving or your doctor suspects that a separate medical condition is causing the pain.

How is sciatica treated?

How is sciatica treated

If you have sciatica, your GP will likely suggest exercises and stretches for you to do at home. They may also prescribe painkillers – like ibuprofen and aspirin – or creams designed to relieve nerve pain.

In some cases, your GP might also refer you for physiotherapy or psychological support. Physiotherapy for sciatica can involve manual therapy techniques like massage and guided exercises.

If your symptoms are more severe and treatments from your GP and/or physiotherapist haven’t helped, you may be referred to a specialist. Specialists might offer treatments such as pain-killing injections, surgery, or a procedure that involves sealing off some of the nerves in your back.

You can read more about how sciatica is treated on the NHS website.

7 ways to manage sciatica at home

ways to manage with sciatica at home

A sciatica flare-up usually gets better within four to six weeks, but can sometimes last longer.

Luckily, there are some things you can do to help relieve symptoms and speed up recovery – and, in many cases, reduce the chances of sciatica returning.

We’ll cover some of these below. However, it’s important to note that if your symptoms don’t improve, are getting worse, or prevent you from doing everyday activities, it’s important to book an appointment with your GP.

1. Stay active and practise sciatica exercises

Staying active can help to ease some of the inflammation that causes sciatica pain. Gentle, low-impact forms of exercise – such as swimming and walking – are advised by the NHS.

Physiotherapists also recommend that people with sciatica do exercises to increase core strength, improve hip and spine mobility, and improve or maintain flexibility in the lower body – for example, knee-to-chest stretches and rotational stretches.

Meanwhile, any exercises that stretch the hamstrings – such as squats, straight-leg sit-ups, and bending forward to touch your toes – are best avoided because these can worsen sciatica symptoms.

For further guidance, the NHS has information on exercises for sciatica available online. If you feel pain at any point during exercise or stretching, it’s important to stop and seek advice from your GP.

2. Use cold and heat therapy

Some people find that cold and heat therapy helps with their sciatica symptoms.

Heat therapy – using a heating pad, for example – can promote tissue healing in the body. Studies show that applying heat over the lower back can improve nerve function, decrease painful muscle tension and spasms, and improve the flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the affected area.

Meanwhile, cold therapy can be applied by placing an ice pack over the lower back region. Studies suggest cold therapy may help to reduce inflammation and swelling and decrease muscle spasms by cooling muscle fibres.

However, it’s important to note that overusing cold and heat therapy can cause skin damage. For this reason, experts generally advise applying heating pads or ice packs for no longer than 15 to 20 minutes at a time, with breaks in between.

You can read more about cold and heat therapy for sciatica on the Spine Health website.

3. Maintain a healthy weight

As mentioned above, carrying excess weight places extra pressure on the spine and causes compression, which can cause or aggravate sciatica.

Alongside staying active, making simple dietary changes – like eating more fruits and vegetables, practising mindful eating, and choosing lean protein sources – can help you maintain a healthy weight.

For healthy diet tips, head over to the diet and nutrition section of our website. Here, you’ll find everything from vitamins and minerals guides to quick and easy diet swaps for a healthier lifestyle.

4. Avoid sitting for long periods of time

Sitting down for long periods can worsen sciatica symptoms because it puts a lot of pressure on your glute muscles, lower back, and sciatic nerve.

There’s also evidence that sitting down too much can cause sciatica in the first place.

Experts recommend getting up and walking around every 30 to 40 minutes or so. And, where possible, sitting on a supportive chair instead of a sofa is preferable for support and posture.

5. Add more anti-inflammatory foods to your diet

Adding more anti-inflammatory foods to your diet – such as berries, avocados, broccoli, and whole grains – can be particularly beneficial for improving sciatica symptoms.

Meanwhile, research has found that processed foods, which are high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat – such as processed meats, ready meals, and fizzy drinks – have the opposite effect. These can increase inflammation and aggravate sciatica symptoms, so it can be beneficial to reduce your intake.

For more information, you might like to read our articles; 14 anti-inflammatory foods and 9 simple ways to cut back on added sugar.

6. Always warm up before lifting weights

Strength training has many health benefits, including improved balance and a reduced risk of osteoporosis.

However, research has found that certain exercises that involve heavy resistance can aggravate sciatica if they’re performed without a proper warm-up.

So, it’s very important to always warm up before exercising.

Low-impact exercises like brisk walking and dynamic stretches are good options. If you’re looking to add some low-impact exercises to your routine, you might like to check out Rest Less Events. Here, we hold weekly low-impact fitness classes, such as yoga and Tai Chi.

7. Quit smoking

We all know that smoking is bad for our health, and research suggests that it can increase your risk of developing chronic pain, including sciatica.

This study found that people who smoke daily are 104% more likely to experience chronic pain than nonsmokers – while occasional smokers are 68% more likely.

If you’d like help and support with quitting smoking, head over to the NHS website.

Final thoughts…

Around nine million adults in England live with back pain and, of these, it’s estimated that one in 20 will experience sciatica in their lifetime. However, while the condition can be painful and distressing, the good news is that most cases improve on their own. But, for those that don’t, or if you need help managing symptoms in the meantime, remember there’s additional support available.

For further reading, head over to the general health section of our website. Here, you’ll find information on everything from gut and lung health to longevity solutions and ways to boost vision.

What are your experiences of sciatica? If you’ve had it before, what helped to manage your symptoms? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.