Sciatica is when the sciatic nerve, which runs from your hips to your feet, is irritated. It usually gets better in 4 to 6 weeks but can last longer.
Check if you have sciatica
If you have sciatica, your:
- backs of your legs
- feet 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 this isn't usually as bad as the pain in your bottom, legs or feet.
You probably don't 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 can sometimes last longer.
To help relieve your pain and speed up your recovery:
- carry on with your normal activities as much as possible
- regular back stretches
- 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 that can help
- 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 take paracetamol on its own – this doesn't help with back pain or sciatica
- do not use hot water bottles to ease the pain – you could scald yourself if your skin is numb
See a GP if the pain:
- hasn't improved after trying home treatments for a few weeks
- is getting worse
- is stopping you doing your normal activities
Go to A&E or call 999 if you:
- have sciatica on both sides
- have weakness or numbness in both legs that is severe or getting worse
- have numbness around or under your genitals, or around your anus
- find it hard to start peeing, can't pee or can't control when you pee – and this isn't normal for you
- don't notice when you need to poo or can't control when you poo – and this isn't 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
Your GP may:
- suggest exercises and stretches
- prescribe painkillers that help with nerve pain like sciatica
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 from the NHS may not be available everywhere and waiting times can be long. You can also get it privately.
Injections and surgery for 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
- smoke – smoking can increase your risk of getting sciatica
Causes of sciatica
Sciatica is due to something pressing or rubbing 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
Social care and support guide
- need help with day-to-day living because of illness or disability
- care for someone regularly because they're ill, elderly or disabled - including family members
Our guide to care and support explains your options and where you can get support.
Page last reviewed: 21/08/2017
Next review due: 21/08/2020