First a huge and important disclaimer. I am not in any way medically qualified, and do not pretend to be. Everything I say is from a viewpoint of a person with 10 years-worth of sciatica suffering. I have tried to write accurately but I cannot guarantee I have got everything right. I’m very happy for physiotherapists, or other clinicians, to put me right on anything!
What does sciatica feel like?
Some people experience only pain as part of their sciatica, whilst others experience only motor/sensory changes, and others unfortunately experience both. Some experience relatively mild symptoms, whilst others have symptoms that are fundamentally disabling.
Sciatic pain can be mild or severe, ranging from a dull ache to pain that is described as sharp, burning or shooting. It can be excruciating and sometimes it can feel like a jolt or electric shock. The path of the pain follows roughly the path of the sciatic nerve, which runs from your lower spine to your buttock and down the back of your thigh and calf and into your foot. At any one point in time you may experience, for example, pain in your calf and not your thigh, at another point pain right along the sciatic nerve pathway, and at another point pain in your buttocks. At other times you may experience a combination of these. Sciatic pain can be highly variable, and affects people in different ways.
As well as pain you may experience sensory/motor loss symptoms, such as numbness, reduced reflexes and motor weakness.
The areas you may experience sciatic symptoms are different depending on which nerve root is compressed:
- If the L4 nerve root is affected then pain, numbness or tingling may be felt in the thigh. Weakness may include the inability to bring the foot upwards (heel walk). You may have reduced knee jerk reflex.
- If the L5 nerve root is affected then symptoms may extend down to the big toe and ankle. You may have weakness in moving your big toe and potentially weakness in your ankle (called foot drop).
- If the S1 nerve root is affected then symptoms may extend to the outer part of the foot, and may radiate to the little toe or toes. Weakness may include difficulty raising the heel off the ground or difficulty walking on tip toes. You may have a reduced ankle-jerk reflex.
If more than one nerve root is compromised, then you may experience a combination of the above symptoms.
Even if there is only one nerve root compromised you may experience a combination of symptoms, in fact this is quite common. This is thought to be due to the inflammation surrounding the irritated nerve root spreading to neighbouring nerve roots. Every instance of sciatica is unique.
Sciatica can be constant or intermittent. It can vary according to your activity. Prolonged sitting or standing can aggravate symptoms, and some people find pain can be worse when you cough or sneeze. It may be exaggerated by physical activity. Usually only one side of your body is affected.
The following diagram illustrates how I am affected by sciatica. Unfortunately, you can’t tell from the MindMap how much pain I have, or how often I get each of the symptoms. I can’t yet think of an easy way to do this. I should also add that most people don’t suffer the range of symptoms or the severity of symptoms that I do. There really is a wide range, from very low level symptoms to more severe symptoms than I have.
So there we have it, this is a description of how sciatica feels like for me.