Sciatica, also called lumbar radiculopathy, is a pain that starts along your sciatic nerve, the largest nerve in the body. The pain goes from the back of your pelvis down the back of your thigh.
Acute Pain Services
The Acute Pain Services at the Pain Management Center deliver comprehensive, multidisciplinary care for individuals with postoperative or post-traumatic pain, and treat conditions such as arthritis, back pain and joint pain.
Autonomic Function Testing
Autonomic function testing measures your sweat, blood pressure and heart rate response to different tasks.
Electromyography (EMG) Laboratory
The EMG laboratory is a state-of-art facility specializing in diagnosis of muscle and nerve disorders.
In this test, the doctor inserts a needle into one of your muscles and takes out a small portion of your muscle for analysis under a microscope.
The Neuromuscular Diagnostic Clinic can use sound waves to get a fast, painless image of your nerves and muscles.
What is sciatica?
Sciatica, also called lumbar radiculopathy, is a pain that originates along your sciatic nerve. It's a symptom of an underlying condition, not a diagnosis. The sciatic nerve extends from the back of your pelvis down the back of your thigh. Your sciatic nerve is the main nerve in your leg. It's also the largest nerve in your entire body.
What causes sciatica?
Usually, sciatica is caused by a herniated (or bulging) disk in your spine that presses on your sciatic nerve.
Other reasons for pressure on your sciatic nerve may include:
Awkward sitting position
Any nerve disorders
Health conditions such as diabetes or Lyme disease can cause symptoms of sciatica. Sometimes, the cause for your sciatica can't be identified.
What are the symptoms of sciatica?
These are the most common symptoms of sciatica:
Lower back pain that radiates or spreads down your buttock and the back of one thigh
Pain that extends from your buttock down to your foot
Numbness (in severe cases)
Weakness (in severe cases)
The symptoms of sciatica may look like other conditions or health problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is sciatica diagnosed?
Along with a complete medical history and physical exam, tests for sciatica may include:
X-ray. Electromagnetic energy beams make images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film.
MRI. Large magnets, radio waves, and a computer make detailed images of organs and structures in your body.
Electromyography and nerve conduction study (EMG and NCS). A procedure done together to record and analyze electrical impulses in your muscles. During the EMG, thin needles are placed in your muscle to record electrical activity. The NCS is often done along with the EMG to determine if a nerve is working normally. Electrodes are then placed in various locations on your skin along the nerve pathway. When stimulating the nerve at various places, your healthcare provider can then find the specific site of your injury.
Myelogram. This is an invasive procedure that requires a special dye (contrast material) to be injected through a needle into the spinal canal. The dye helps any deformities to show up on X-rays. This procedure is normally only done when other tests don't find the cause of the symptoms.
How is sciatica treated?
Sciatica usually heals on its own with some rest, appropriate movement, and time.
Physical activity is important. Don’t stay in bed. Lack of movement will cause problems in other parts of your body.
Find a comfortable position, but stay as active as you can. As strange as it may seem, appropriate motion helps to reduce inflammation and pain. Talk to you doctor about when to start stretching exercises so you can resume regular physical activities without pain. Your provider may suggest short walks or physical therapy.
To help relieve the pain, treatment may include:
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen
Heat or cold applied to the sore muscles
Specific stretching exercises or physical activities (motion reduces inflammation)
Surgery (to fix your herniated disk, if the condition persists)
What are possible complications of sciatica?
Because sciatica is caused by pressure on a nerve in your spine, complications may develop if the pressure is not relieved. Possible complications of unrelieved nerve compression include:
A slipped or herniated disc
Loss of feeling or weakness in your affected leg
Loss of bowel or bladder function
Permanent nerve damage
When should I call my healthcare provider?
Call your healthcare provider if:
You develop back pain when you have a history of cancer.
You have a high fever.
Your pain worsens.
You lose feeling in your affected leg or notice weakness in your leg.
You develop problems with your bowels or bladder.
Your pain returns after successful treatment of your sciatica.
Key points about sciatica
Sciatica most commonly occurs in people between the ages of 30 and 50 years.
It's pain that starts along your sciatic nerve and spreads down your buttock and the back of one thigh.
It's usually caused by a herniated (or bulging) disk in your spine that presses on your sciatic nerve.
Sciatica usually heals on its own with some rest, appropriate exercise, and time.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
News & Publications
Quantity and Characteristics of Waste at a Level I Trauma Center
The purpose of this study was to quantify and describe the amount of waste generated by an Emergency Department, identify deviations from waste policy and explore areas for waste reduction.
The Climate-Smart Emergency Department: A Primer
Our publication keeps health care professionals up to date on the latest research and clinical advances from Mass General.
Research Institute Blog
News and notes from the largest hospital-based research program in the United States
A podcast devoted to uncovering the stories of Mass General's relentless pursuit to break boundaries and provide exceptional care
The Patient Gateway provides secure online access to your health information whenever you need it. Check upcoming appointments, communicate with your doctor’s office, review medications and pay medical bills—all seamlessly online 24/7.