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Want to know how to get rid of your sciatica? The first step is understanding the root cause. Read on to learn about some of the most common sciatica causes—and what to do about them.

You might be surprised to learn that sciatica isn’t a condition, but a description of symptoms caused by other conditions in your lower back. You also might not care, because whatever it is, sciatica hurts.

Sciatica is the name of the pain from when something—usually a herniated disc, but other causes are possible too—compresses, irritates or inflames the sciatic nerve or one of the nerve roots that eventually become the sciatic nerve. Translation: pain up and down your leg—you might feel it anywhere from your buttocks to your ankle.

Want to know how to get rid of your sciatica? The first step is understanding the root cause. Read on to learn about some of the most common sciatica causes—and what to do about them.

What Causes Sciatica?

Sciatica is actually a symptom of an underlying problem. There are several spinal disorders can cause sciatic nerve compression. The six most common are:

  • Bulging or herniated disc
  • Lumbar spinal stenosis
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Trauma that can result in spinal cord injuries
  • Piriformis syndrome
  • Spinal tumor

Though all of these can be responsible for sciatica, disc herniation is by far the most common. In fact, some research indicates that up to 90 percent of sciatica is the result of a herniated disc in the lumbar spine.

What Are Some Less Common Causes of Sciatica?

Some lesser-known causes of sciatica can include:

  • Endometriosis, a growing of uterine tissue outside of the uterus that can accumulate in areas that surround the sciatic nerve or the sciatic nerve itself
  • Infection in the spine or spinal column that causes an abscess to form and press on the sciatic nerve or damage to the nerve itself
  • Nerve damage from diabetes
  • Shifting or growing of a fetus during pregnancy that can result in nerve compression
  • Side effects from medications

Another common source of traumatic injury is direct damage to the peroneal nerve. This often results from a knee dislocation or lower leg fracture and may present as numbness in the back of the calf or weakness in the ankle when pointing the toes toward the shin. Infrequently, it may occur in a post-operative knee or hip replacement patient. Ruling out a spinal cause in such cases is imperative.

Risk Factors for Sciatica

In addition to all of these potential causes of sciatica, features of your anatomy, your genetics, and your lifestyle can combine to make you more susceptible to sciatic nerve pain. Some of these sciatica risk factors can include:

  • Age: Getting older increases your risk of herniated discs and degenerative disc disease which, as you now know, are two of the most common causes of sciatica
  • Obesity: Carrying an unhealthy amount of extra weight stress the spine and puts more pressure on your discs, which can lead to herniation or other damage
  • Jobs and activities: Some jobs are strenuous and physical, involving lots of lifting and twisting. Lifting and twisting unsafely can be big contributors to sciatica risk. Conversely, other jobs have you sitting for too long, which can also stress your discs, especially if that sitting leads to weakened core muscles and, therefore, less protection for your spine and its discs.
  • Spine injury: Previous injury can weaken discs and make them more susceptible to herniation and damage.

How Is Sciatica Treated?

Treating sciatica can often be done through self-care at home. Doing things like applying ice packs, taking over-the-counter pain relievers/inflammation reducers, and gentle stretches help to reduce inflammation in and around the sciatic nerve or whatever is compressing it to alleviate symptoms.

Your doctor also may:

  • Offer prescription medication, such as a muscle relaxant or painkiller
  • Recommend physical therapy that will help reduce pressure on the nerve
  • Advise getting spinal injections near the affected nerve to reduce inflammation
  • Suggest alternative techniques to relieve symptoms, such as acupuncture or yoga

Surgery for sciatica is rare, but the most common procedures are a microdiscectomy, which clears out part of a herniated disc, or laminectomy that removes part of a vertebra to make more room in the spinal canal.

There you have it. Understanding what’s causing your sciatica leads to understanding how to treat it. Getting a diagnosis and shedding light on your sciatica cause is the first step in feeling better.