What is the Sciatic Nerve?

Paulla Estes
Paulla Estes

The sciatic nerve is the longest and thickest nerve in the human body, measuring just under 1 inch (2.54 cm) in width, comparative to the diameter of a finger. It runs from the lower spine through the pelvic area and down through the hip and back of the leg. It's the major nerve supplier to the legs, and it branches out to provides movement and feeling to the hip, thigh, knee, calf, ankle, foot and toes. In spite of its length and size, it normally behaves like all other nerves; it transmits signals to and from the muscles and the brain. All movement and feeling in the legs and feet are dependent on the proper function of this nerve and its branches.

Sciatica may cause acute pain in the lower back.
Sciatica may cause acute pain in the lower back.

When the nerve becomes inflamed, pinched, or injured, the symptoms are known as sciatica. A troublesome sciatic nerve resulting in sciatica can cause acute pain anywhere from the lower back and hips to the feet and toes. Sometimes, it can become pressed or crushed because of a herniated disc in the lower spine. In rare cases, a tumor might cause a compressed nerve. In these severe cases, sciatica can result in a loss of feeling or reflexes, and/or weakness in the hips and legs.

Pregnant women often suffer from sciatica pain.
Pregnant women often suffer from sciatica pain.

Symptoms of sciatica can include pains such as cramping, burning, or shooting sensations in the hip and thigh, though the pain can extend all the way to the foot and toes. These symptoms can be aggravated by simple movements such as coughing, bending, or squatting, all of which put pressure on the nerve.

Physical therapy may help treat sciatica pain.
Physical therapy may help treat sciatica pain.

Sciatica can be caused by anything from a back injury to poor posture. The condition is rare in people under 30. Pregnant women often suffer from sciatica as the sciatic nerve runs directly under the uterus from the spine to the legs. The developing baby puts pressure on the nerve, resulting in mounting pain through the course of the pregnancy.

Coughing can aggravate sciatica.
Coughing can aggravate sciatica.

Treatment for a painful sciatic nerve begins with an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen. Often, once the inflammation subsides, so does the pain; this is usually the time that a medical professional will prescribe stretches, exercises, and even physical therapy to build up the muscles around the nerve. Recovery can take anywhere from one to three months. Sometimes the sciatic nerve is so compressed that surgery is required to make more room for it. This can include prying up the bone around the nerve or removing a ruptured disc. Most people recover completely from sciatica without surgery.

A non-steroidal pain reliever like ibuprofen can help relieve sciatica pain.
A non-steroidal pain reliever like ibuprofen can help relieve sciatica pain.
It's possible for a herniated disc in the lower spine to press against the sciatic nerve, resulting in pain.
It's possible for a herniated disc in the lower spine to press against the sciatic nerve, resulting in pain.
Paulla Estes
Paulla Estes

Paulla is a freelance writer and website editor who currently lives in Maine. Paulla has a B.A. in English Literature from George Mason University and over 15 years of experience as a freelancer. She relishes the flexibility and consistency of working on wiseGEEK articles, as well as the opportunity to constantly learn something new.

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Discussion Comments


I was diagnosed with L4-5 bulging discs last summer, along with sciatica in the right leg. I needed a walker for three months, and had 3.5 months of physical therapy. I have had some "flares" treated with ice, moist heat, ibuprofen and rx'ed lower doses of generic 4mg zanaflex.

I'm now having a huge flare, into week three, my pain is completely around my right leg, not just in the side and back of my leg into my foot, Both hips (indent/joint area) are tight and achy, and the pain and swelling near my tailbone makes it hard to lie on my back to stretch or sleep (I have a 3" memory foam topper on my bed, even!). The right side is definitely weaker. My reflex in my knee has gone again, and I have drop foot again (like last summer). I'm back to using a walker and 2mg zanaflex 2x day/4mg night with ibuprofen 400/600 day, 1/2 percocet at night and anti-inflammatory supplements (trying).

This morning, it felt like something "moved" or "rolled" inside my right upper hip (muffin top) area when I accidentally rolled over to my right side, sleeping with a pillow under my knees or between my legs. I can only really sleep on L side, causing irritation (overuse?). Weird! Yes, I can walk, I have sensation, can wiggle my toes, etc.

I am not allowed to have steroids (I'm medication sensitive in general) and the idea of the shots knowing they're temporary and seeing people I know having had them and had awful outcomes or very very short term relief and then more pain, is awful and I don't want that.

I am doing stretches and light ab exercises for core, balance ball (just sit on it for about 20 minutes), cannot otherwise sit comfortably for more than 10 minutes, using walker, trying to get even short walks in-must "haul" walker up and down stairs making that part harder to deal with.

I cannot have surgery yet. I am living on the third floor of an old house, all stairs, and no way to accommodate if it was needed.

I scared because I am starting to having bit of trouble holding it when I have to urinate. Has anyone else ever had the "something move" sensation or have a flare that acts up this bad/this long? Suggestions, opinions welcome. Thanks!


I have pain in my buttock on the right side, in my right thigh, around my knee on the right and my ankle on the right. When I stand up, the pressure on my ankle is so painful I have to limp.

I've got throbbing going on below the knee when I'm sitting down my hip bone feels a little sore, too. I could hardly walk today. It's painful to walk, and I mean tearful, painful.


I've been having pain in my lower left and center of back when I stand and walk. The pain is gets worse when I stand over a minute. It get to the point my legs get weak and I can't stand any more, or I have to lean on something and I'm only 33 years of age. Is this caused by sciatic nerve problems?


I've been going through this horrible pain in my lower left and center back, but only when I stand and walk. I can't stand for over a minute without the pain, making my legs feel weak. Is this caused by sciatic nerve?


I have been suffering from a pinched sciatic nerve for about nine months. I have been to see a chiropractor and have also been to see a neurosurgeon. Within the next week I will have surgery to correct this. I will post after surgery as to the outcome.


For the last month, I have been feeling inflammation in the sole of my right leg frequently. What would be the cause? Is it the symptom of any disease? Please advise me.


I'm 20 years old with no kids. I do normally dance a lot, but not anymore. It seems as though the right side of my lower back, from my right butt cheek down to my leg and now toes are feeling very weak and at times when I am walking around, I get a sharp pain in the back of my leg. Also, this may sound very weird, but I noticed my right butt cheek looks as though it is shrinking. Not cool!

I haven't been able to dance because of it and even my inner thigh is starting to feel very weak, as well. I am assuming that it may be sciatic. Not being able to do what I love the most kills me. I am too young!


My husband has a tumor right inside his nerve. It's above his knee and we would appreciate any links to more information on this condition and treatment. -- Suzanne.


I'm 13 weeks pregnant and I've been getting a shooting pain and a dull ache in my left side at the bottom of my back. i also had a pain in my bum cheeks when i stood up earlier. hope I'm not getting sciatica.


I had sciatica all summer last year and it started with my right leg swelling and the knee bulging on one side and looking like a beach ball. I was in physical therapy for a month and a half at the end of summer [August into Sept.].

Now I feel nerve pain in my right leg on the outer side as well as on the inside and behind the knee and down to my toes and in my back and my right arm. It's now February 2011 and I still feel nerve pain and I get stiff when it's really cold outside, like I can't move.


Sciatica is terrible. When I was pregnant I was totally miserable as I got further and further along.

My doctor kept saying it would just go away on its own, but it never really did -- the only thing that helped was lots of warm baths.

I hope other pregnant ladies don't have to go through what I did!


@musicshaman -- I would consult a doctor. Since both sciatic nerve damage symptoms and femoral nerve damage symptoms can manifest pretty similarly, and neither condition should be left alone, I would make an appointment with your physician as soon as possible.


I've recently been experiencing leg pain and numbness. How can I tell if it's being caused by sciatic nerve problems or by femoral nerve damage?

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