What Is Sciatica Pain? It’s A Pain In The Butt!

What is sciatica pain? In this post, I am going to discuss sciatica pain, what causes it and talk about my personal experience.  If you have heard this term before,  aren’t quite sure what it means, or if you suffer from sciatica, I hope you will continue reading.

Do you have pain radiating down your leg? Sciatica is pain that travels along the pathway of the sciatic nerve. Sciatica is not a diagnosis, but a term for pain along this path.   Before I get too far, I want to take a look at the spine and explain how all these pieces fit together.  In this post, I am going to have a pretty high-level discussion, and I want to try to explain this in simple terms.

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Click here for details.

The spine consists of different regions, cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral.  Cervical refers to the neck area; thoracic is the upper and mid-back, lumbar is lower back and sacral is the bottom of the spine.

Image of spine area
ACDF oblique annotated English by debivort/CC By-SA 3.0 Unported

The image above shows the makeup of the spine.  The vertebral body, or vertebrae, are the bones that make up the backbone and protect the spinal cord.  The discs are there to act as shock absorbers, to keep the bones from rubbing against each other. The discs are made up of a tough outer layer and a soft, gel-like interior. You can also see the nerves.

Discs are designed to be flexible and sturdy to allow for movement and absorb pressure, which cushions the vertebrae (bones in your spine) from actions we do every day.

Discs consist of three parts, Annulus fibrosis, the sturdy exterior material, nucleus pulposus, the inner gel-like substance, cartilaginous endplates; this connects the disc to the vertebrae.

Imagine the discs are like the cream filling between Oreo cookies and sit between each vertebra in the spine.  When a disc is damaged, the gel-like center, or cookie cream filling, can leak out, and press up against a nerve and cause pain.

The Sciatic nerve

Five nerves make up the sciatic nerve.  These five nerves come together at the piriformis muscle (a muscle deep in your butt) and form the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve runs right underneath, or through the piriformis muscle.  This nerve is about as big around as your finger.

 

The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body. It runs from the lower spine, on the right and left side your body, through your butt, down the back of your leg all the way to your foot.  The sciatic nerve connects the spinal cord with leg and foot muscles.

As the nerve travels down the back of each leg, it branches out and provides motor and sensory functions to the legs and feet. The sciatic nerve branches off at the behind the knee into two nerves, the peroneal and tibial nerves.  The peroneal nerves go through the outer part of the knee and down to the upper foot. The tibial nerve continues down to the heel and sole.

The sciatic nerve has a big job, as it supplies the legs with feeling, strength, and reflexes.  This nerve also connects many of the muscles in your leg (including, but not limited to hamstrings, outer thigh) with the spinal cord.  When the sciatic nerve is injured or irritated, it can lead to problems, like weak muscles, or in my case, tingling in my leg.  I have had tingling or numbness in my outer calf, ankle, even all the way to my toes.

Different types of pain come from sciatica symptoms, meaning you might feel pain in different areas of your lower body, like your butt, hamstring, calf, ankle or toes.

Pain can range anywhere from annoying to debilitating and also the length of time you be in pain will vary on factors like the degree of injury.  It’s hard to say precisely how long you will be in pain.

One of the biggest things people think about when it comes to sciatica is leg pain.

What causes sciatica?

The causes of sciatica vary; common conditions that can cause sciatica are a lumbar herniated disc, degenerative disc, or spinal stenosis.  There are other conditions as well, but this is a sample of some common ones. The piriformis muscle can wreak havoc on the sciatic nerve as well and cause sciatica-like symptoms, but, a spinal problem causes sciatica.

Degeneration

Degeneration means that a disc is losing hydration which makes the disc harder and more susceptible to tearing or cracking.  When the disc loses its flexibility, it can become more vulnerable to herniation.  Degeneration happens as we age and also just good old wear and tear on the body.

Herniated disc

With a herniated disc, the gel-like interior leaks through the hard, outer area and pushes against the nerve root (a nerve root is a nerve that leaves the spinal cord and branches out to other areas of the body).  The medical term for a pinched nerve is Radiculopathy.

 

Disc degeneration makes the discs more susceptible to damage, like tearing or cracking.  If this happens, the gel-like center can leak out and contact the nerve.  Damage to the nerve can cause sciatica or pain along the nerve channel.

If you lift something heavy, twist your lower back, or make some other motion that put stress on the discs, you may end up with a herniated disc. It doesn’t have to be a traumatic movement or injury that can lead to a herniated disc.  You can step off of a curb, or bend over to pick up a load of laundry and these things can happen.

The herniated disc goes by many names, including, slipped disc, bulging disc, ruptured disc, or sometimes you will hear people call it a pinched nerve since the disc space is pushing against the sciatic nerve.

People use these term interchangeably, although there are some differences.  With a herniated disc, the gel-like interior is not contained within the disc, as the outer part of the disc has a tear or crack allowing the gel-like fluid to leak out.  With a bulging disc, the interior fluid is still contained, no gel has leaked out. The disc is literally bulging and pushing against a nerve.

Stenosis

Stenosis means “narrowing or constricting space.” Stenosis is the narrowing of the spinal canal, meaning there is less space in the spinal canal where nerves travel.

With lumbar spinal stenosis, the nerve roots are compressed and can demonstrate symptoms of sciatica.  A bulging or herniated disc can cause stenosis since the disc protrudes out of the spine, this has now narrowed the free space in the spinal canal.

Often, as was my case dealing with stenosis, leaning forward provides relief.  I hobbled around leaning on my kid’s shoulders or a shopping cart.

My experience

I have had back problems since my late 20’s.  In 1999 I underwent back surgery after months and months of pain.  I had previously tried physical therapy, injections and nothing was working for me.

My pain level with sciatica has been minor to freaking unbearable.  I have had trouble sleeping or finding any comfortable position sitting, standing, or laying down.  Not being able to dress myself kind of sucked the life out of me.

I have had pain so severe that I didn’t know if I would be able to make my 45-minute commute to work or not.  Then get to work and barely make it from my car to my desk.

In late 2015 I was doing things at the gym that I had no business doing, given my history of back trouble.  I ended up with a herniated disc, which put me in stenosis, and a sprained SI joint.  This time I went to see a very highly recommended chiropractor.

My chiro visits were multiple times per week, and I was dead set against having surgery again.  During this time I was dealing with stenosis, and I was not able to stand upright, bent over about 30 degrees.  Like I said, getting around was tough, relying on my kids and shopping carts.

Finally, I was upright, after months of treatment and my trusted inversion table.

My chiropractor pushed me to work on building, and maintaining muscle in my core, but also my whole body.  One way to help sciatica is to strengthen your core, which will help support your spine.

If you are suffering from sciatica, of course, you should make sure you are working with a doctor or other healthcare provider.

Things that have worked for me are:

Check out the links above my other posts for more information.  Depending on your condition, you may not be able to use an inversion table or workout.  So some of these posts are great for prevention.  Again, you should talk to your doctor before you begin an exercise or treatment program.

I hope this post has given you a better understanding of sciatica.  I know there are a lot of people who deal with this and also people who don’t realize what shooting pain down the leg means. Let me know if you have any questions or comments.  I will get back to you as soon as I can.

I would love to get some feedback.  Do you deal with lower back or leg pain?  Do you know someone who does?

Thanks!

Steve@BuildingStrongerBodies.com

References

https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/degenerative-disc-disease/lumbar-degenerative-disc-disease-ddd

https://www.laserspineinstitute.com/back_problems/spinal_stenosis/

https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/spine-anatomy/sciatic-nerve-anatomy


Disclosure: Some of the links in this review are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.  Click here for details.

36 thoughts on “What Is Sciatica Pain? It’s A Pain In The Butt!”

  1. Great info here about sciatic pain. My mom suffers from it and I never really knew the details about it just that her hip and leg were always killing her. Thanks for the education and enlightenment!

    • Thank you Lynne, I appreciate you stopping by today. I can tell you sciatica pain is no fun. Thanks again for your comment.

  2. Hi Steve, thank you for a great article and explanation of Sciatica Pain.

    I really enjoyed reading it and found the videos very useful in helping me to understand why I could be having the pain in my lower back and legs.

    I also get a cramp in my calf muscle and my calf muscle locks, do you think this could also be related to sciatica?

    • Hello Moni, thank you for stopping by today. Sorry to hear your having lower leg cramps. The Sciatic nerve does control a lot of lower leg sensation and movement so you may be on to something there. I would definitely check with your doctor and see what you are dealing with.

  3. Wow! Great information on sciatica pain. My dad has had problems with his back forever and this being one of his pains. He has had several surgeries, and won’t do another one. Looks like we have a few other options that he can do. This is of great help! Thanks!

    • Yes, there are options for dealing with sciatica, surgery is one of them. After having one surgery myself, I really wanted to see what other options were available when I injured myself in 2015. Prior to that, I had some not so great advice along the way and I was just going to deal with the pain rather than have surgery again. I am in much better shape now, and I hope to keep it that way. Thanks again for sharing your comment, I appreciate it.

  4. I found it very informative, and it was excellent the way you used the video to tell us how sciatica can be crippling. Sorry for the pain you have been through and I wish you luck in the future. I am glad you found the care you needed.

  5. Wow! This article is packed with information! I work in the health insurance industry and I see this diagnois quite often but never really knew what it was. It’s is an awful feeling to be in pain but the good thing is we know what causes it and how to treat it. I pray you never suffer another episode of this as long as you live. Best of luck my friend

    • Thank you very much Davona, I appreciate your comment. I am glad you have a better understanding of what Sciatica is and how it occurs. I am sure you see a lot of these diagnoses in the health insurance industry. A lot of people deal with shooting pain in their leg and see the doctor. Usually pain medication is the answer. I have tried a lot of different pain killers and nothing worked for me. Thanks again for stopping by, have a great day.

  6. Excellent information about sciatica. I have had issue with this on and off for a long time. A few months ago I was pulling a tree stump up in my front yard and seriously tweaked my sciatic nerve somehow. I hate the pain and the way it makes me not want to move. It is very hard to find a way to sleep, as you said. Basically, I just have to be careful and let it play its course and eventually it is ok again. I am trying the core training right now to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
    Thank you for the great information!

    • Hi Curtis. Yes, I can imagine the pain from an exhausting task like pulling a tree stump out of the ground. You know I can hook it up to my truck next time and save your back LOL. I have really become a lot more cautious over the years, with the combination of back problems and aging. I used to do everything myself, now I ask for help and hire people to do some of the “heavy lifting” around my house anymore.

      I am glad you are working on some core training, that will definitely help the muscles that support the spine. I do core work every single day and am trying to keep myself out of trouble. Thanks for your comment, and I hope your pain subsides soon.

  7. Excellent post, I have never had this pain, but for sure never want to get it. Never heard of it until now. Love how you said pain in the butt lol. Made me laugh. Thanks for the extra helpful knowledge. Keep it coming.

    • No problem AJ, I appreciate you stopping by today. Sciatic nerve pain is a problem for a lot of people, I hope you can continue to steer clear.

  8. After 32 yrs in the military with countless tours of duty, of the many ailments I suffer from, sciatica is not one of them. I guess I can count myself fortunate that I have not had any serious back injuries.

    I do find myself getting tight in the lower back area when I am road cycling. I’ve tried an inversion table once before and I could certainly feel the difference afterwards. Because of the great detail and information in your post, I am seriously considering getting one. Thanks for sharing.

    • First of all, I want to thank you for your service!

      I am glad you have not had to deal with sciatica, but I am sorry to hear about your other ailments. I can only imagine with your military duty, the toll that takes on your body. I hope you were able to check out my best inversion table for back pain reviews. I love using mine and I am on it a couple of times per week.

      Thank you for stopping by, I appreciate your comment. Let me know if you have any more questions, I am here to help.

  9. I have a family member that deals with this type of pain. They have been doing yoga and they say it helps. This was a lot of information to take in so I will definitely re-read it and forward to people that I know that deal with this. Great article!

    • Thank you Mike, I appreciate your comment. Sorry for information overload 🙂 I even tried to keep it short-ish. There is so much information about Sciatica, and I really could go deeper, but tried to keep it high level. Yes, please read it again and send to whomever can benefit from this post. Thanks again for stopping by. Let me know if you have any questions, I would love to help.

  10. WOW I am so sorry you have had such unbearable pain due to Sciatica. That must have been horrible, but I am glad you have found some relief. Not sure about the inversion table, though…! I had no idea that the sciatic nerve supplies the legs with feeling, strength and reflexes. My concern is that I have felt tingling and numbness in my ankle and foot and wondering if that is from the sciatic nerve as well. Your post was very helpful to me and thank you for paying it forward.

    • Thanks for your comment Amy. Ha, I love my inversion table, my kids tell me I look like a bat when I am hanging upside down. Yes, the sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body and it has a big job. When the nerve is injured or irritated, you can feel pain along it’s path. I mentioned that I have had pain in different places, like my calf, my outer knee, ankle and toes. This all depends on where the nerve is dinged. You may very well be dealing with sciatica. Thanks for stopping by, I appreciate your comment.

  11. My parents both have sciatica. As I’m starting to get older, I am concerned about that as well. Is there any genetic association to getting sciatica, or is it mostly environment/behavior based?

    I do yoga on a weekly basis and try to stretch out often, but is that enough to prevent sciatica? Are there any foods that can help, or should be avoided?

    • Thanks for your comment Craig. As for genetics, Sciatica itself is a symptom of a low back problem due to injury or age, and is not related to genetics. As for foods that can help, a balanced diet of course is a great start. Also foods that are not inflammatory are great to eat, like Salmon, asparagus, dark leafy greens. I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any more questions.

  12. I have a friend that suffers from Sciatic pain. I never really understood what sciatic pain is. I am glad to come to your website. You have done a nice job explaining what it it. Now I have a better understanding of it. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Thank you for stopping by, I appreciate it. Sciatica is no fun, and I am glad you have a better understanding of it now. Have a great day.

  13. I’ve heard inversion tables are great. As you get some relief, I would include some exercises. I would include ones that don’t compress the joints too much, such as long walks and other exercises that stretch out the vertebrae, such as yoga.
    Do you think diet has any impact on sciatic pain?

    • Hi Melinda, thank you for your comment.  I definitely agree that inverting can help, if done properly and gently.  Exercise is the next step.  

      I do think diet can help in some cases. In the case of an injury, no, but for general inflammation, yes. Eating foods that will not cause inflammation such as fish, dark green leafy veggies, etc can help to keep inflammation out of those joints.  

      Thanks again for stopping by, I appreciate it!

  14. Hi There!

    Awesome article! My father was dealing with sciatica pain for a number of years (primarily from sitting at a desk for 8-12 hours a day). This problem worsened to the point where he was dealing with “drop foot” and eventually had to elect to have surgery to fix the issue.

    I’m very glad that things like yoga and exercise worked for you, and that you emphasize in your post the importance of a strong core. It’s something I feel like I always need to work on because I feel like so many issues can come from a lack of core strength.

    Overall, super informative article and I like the embedded videos too!

    • Thanks for your comment Tucker.  I am sorry to hear about your dad and “drop foot”, that is unfortunate.

      I agree with you, core exercise is so important and a lot of people don’t realize how important.  I have changed my workouts to include more functional type exercises, and this help take the bore out of core work.  I feel that I need to exercise like I live life, not just pound out a bunch of weight.  

      Strengthening core muscles helps to support the spine and that is a good thing.  

      Thanks again, I appreciate your comment.

  15. I had a steroid shot about 15 years ago after a heavy load fell on my at a warehouse. I never really got any relief from that shot.  Is that normal?  My doctor said to give it some time.  I have been bodybuilding ever since, but I still have a numb sensation.  I just keep on doing what I have been doing, and it hasn’t gotten any worse.  I do wonder if I should be doing deadlifts though.  Any thoughts on that?

    • Hi Cooki, thanks for stopping by.  I have not had any relief from injections either, I understand they don’t work for everyone.  So sorry to hear about your accident all those years ago.  I have come to manage my pain, and if things aren’t too bad, I roll with it.  I have a good idea what I should expect as far as pain goes.  As for deadlifting, that is exactly how I blew the disc in my back in 2015, so I don’t do that anymore.  I was trying to do too much, especially for a guy who has a history of back problems.  That was my experience, yours may be different.  Thanks for your comment, I appreciate it.

  16. Oh man I gotta be honest I couldn’t read the title without laughing a bit inside. What a coincidence now that I am 27 I suffered a back injury myself while picking a towel up off the floor.  When I bent over came straight up, I felt a pop in my lower back.  I know exactly what you are talking about with the tingling and shooting pain down the leg.  I love the title, its funny, but not a funny situation to be in.

    • Thanks for your comment. I am really sorry to hear about your injury, I have been there myself.  I hope you are getting some treatment and some relief, it’s not a fun place to be.  Best of luck to you in your recovery.

  17. Steve, nice article. It really rings a bell as I have developed a pinched nerve (for whatever reason) over the last few years.

    I find your swimming exercise interesting but find it hard to lay on the floor with toes pointed. Even with a strict anti cramping regime I still get leg cramps doing this. So my question to you is, why not do it in a pool. We have a 25m indoor pool near here. I used to swim every day until I got a job. I really missed it but now want to start again. So is this a good core exercise?

    What I am doing now, after visiting a physiologist, are a number of stretching exercises. And feel better when I remember to do them!

    I believe you have inspired me to get back in my routine.

    Thanks.

    Ciao
    Helen

    • Thank you Helen, I appreciate your comment. The swimming exercise works really well for me, but everyone is different. I do this first thing in the morning for five minutes, six days per week.  I don’t have access to a pool to swim laps in, so this is a great way for me to do this exercise.  I love the swimmer exercise, as it works so many different muscles and yes it definitely works core muscles.  If swimming works for you and you have access to a pool, great.  Thanks again for stopping by!

  18. Well, I don’t suffer from sciatica but I am always interested to know all about ailments, injuries and symptoms. You just never know. It’s always best to be safe than sorry.

    I’m going to check out the rest of your site Steve and see what other gems of information that I can learn from you.

    I’ll be bookmarking this site.

    Thanks,
    Owain

    • Thank you for stopping by Owain, I appreciate it. Please let me know if you have any questions, I am here to help.

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