If you’ve had it, you know what it is. It’s literally a pain in the buttocks on one side that radiates down the back of thigh and into the leg. It hurts! Learn about the anatomy, symptoms and causes of sciatica.


The spinal cord begins at the base of the brain and runs down spine. It branches out at nerve roots that carry electrical impulses to and from the brain to the body.

The sciatic nerve, about the thickness of a finger, is the longest nerve in the body. It runs through or under the piriformis muscle and controls the muscles in the back of the knee and lower leg, and provides sensation to the back of the thigh, lower leg, and the sole of the foot.

What is sciatica?

Sciatica is a symptom of nerve root damage. It is a pinched nerve.  The primary symptom is a deep and steady burning, or sharp shooting pain that runs along the spinal nerve root down the back of the thigh and into the calf. Compression of the nerve root also causes numbness, tingling, muscle weakness and a loss of reflexes. The pain of sciatica can be severe. Importantly, most patients will experience back pain in addition to buttocks and leg pain.

What causes sciatica?

The most common cause is a herniated disc in the lower back. About 1 in 50 people will experience a herniated disc some time in their lives. Compression can be caused by aging and wear and tear on the spine, spinal stenosis, a bone spur, Piriformis Syndrome*, a slipped disc, trauma, and pregnancy.

What is Piriformis Syndrome?

Hip pain that occurs when moving the leg out or behind the body that is felt in the buttocks and lower back. Inflammation in the Piriformis muscles puts pressure on the sciatic nerve causing sciatica.

How is sciatica diagnosed?

All potential causes must be explored to determine the cause. A physical exam can identify  any nerve problem or sciatica. Imaging studies may be necessary to confirm a diagnosis. The  spine specialists at Ortho Illinois are skilled and experienced in diagnosis and treating sciatica.

What is the treatment?

The goal of treatment is to relieve pain and improve mobility. Frequently the pain can be treated with conservative, nonsurgical measures, and will subside within six weeks. But 20-30% people suffer for years.  Numbness can indicate nerve damage, which can become permanent. So, don’t wait to see our specialists.

Treatment is designed to help you manage your pain without the long-term use of pain medication. Anti-inflammatory medications are commonly employed along with physical therapy. If you have muscle spasms, you may be prescribed a muscle relaxant. Yoga, acupuncture, and physical therapy can improve sciatica. X-ray guided epidural steroid injections help to reduce swelling and inflammation.

80-90% of sufferers can achieve pain relief without surgery. For those who find no relief from conservative treatment, or when the pain progresses or is excruciating, surgery may be necessary.

A herniated disc may be treated with a microdiscetomy- removal of part of the disc that impinges on the nerve. If the cause is spinal stenosis, a laminectomy will release pressure on the nerve.

People who have severe sciatica with leg weakness and bowel or bladder changes may need immediate surgery. Untreated chronic sciatica can result in chronic muscle weakness and foot drop.

At Ortho Illinois Spine Care our board-certified, fellowship trained orthopedic and neuro surgeons are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of spine disorders. We are a regional spine center for people in northern Illinois and the Chicago region who are suffering with neck and back pain. Our goal is to help relieve your pain and restore your function so you can get back to the life you love. Call us now at 815-398-9491, to get the correct diagnosis and care.