5 Ways to Determine Whether You Have Sciatica

It's a good idea to consult with a specialist to see whether you have sciatica and to receive the right treatment. This is because some symptoms of sciatica, which can disappear over time, match those of other health problems.
5 Ways to Determine Whether You Have Sciatica
Nelton Abdon Ramos Rojas

Written and verified by the doctor Nelton Abdon Ramos Rojas.

Last update: 09 October, 2022

When you have back pain and it’s bothering you quite a bit in your routine, you may wonder what you have and what it’s called. Is it lower back pain? Could you have sciatica? And then, you may wonder how one differs from the other and how to treat them correctly.

While a visit to the doctor in such cases will be indispensable to be able to determine the cause of the problem and thus know what exactly you have, here are some ways to find out if you have sciatica. This way, you’ll be able to tell your doctor more precisely what’s ailing you and how it’s affecting you.

What is sciatica?

Sciatica is a type of pain that can radiate along the sciatic nerve to the foot. It usually affects only one side of the body, and according to data provided by the Merck Manual, “sciatica occurs in approximately 5% of people with back pain”.

It’s not always possible to determine the exact cause. However, there are cases in which, upon evaluation, it’s evident that the cause is a herniated disc or inflammation due to ligament sprain, for example.

The sciatic nerve goes from the spine to the foot. When it’s pinched, sciatica (i.e., pain) occurs. This occurs because its function is disturbed. This is when you perceive pain, weakness, and a tingling sensation.

A digital illustration of the sciatic nerve.

Associated symptoms

  • Tingling sensation.
  • Numbness (in the leg or only in the foot).
  • Pain (persistent or sudden during certain movements).
    • The pain may be worse when sitting, walking, running, climbing stairs, stretching the legs, coughing or sneezing, exerting yourself, etc.

Therefore, if you feel a pain that goes from your back to one of your legs and you also notice numbness or tingling, as well as the discomfort, the issue may not be a cramp, but sciatica.

Let’s take a look at some other symptoms that may indicate that you may have sciatica.

1. You have weak knees

A man with pain in his knee.

When the knee of the affected leg is weak, sciatica may be the problem.

It should be noted that when the pain affects both legs, it’s crucial you seek medical help immediately. Surgery may be necessary as a matter of urgency.

2. You can no longer run

It’s difficult to see whether the pain athletes experience in their leg is a sign of sciatica. This is because sciatica and piriformis syndrome have almost the same symptoms. However, the second condition is more common than the first.

Moreover, tingling, pain, and numbness that reach the leg are symptoms of both health issues. You could also be suffering from another condition if these symptoms present themselves. This is why you should visit your doctor immediately if you have any of the above symptoms. Ignoring the warning signs that your body gives you could make the situation worse.

Even though we all believe that athletes are very healthy, never ignore any pain or discomfort if you fall into this category. 

3. You’re in pain

Both persistent pain that goes from the back area down the leg and sudden pain in the same area when performing different activities may indicate that you have sciatica.

When going to the doctor, you should be clear ab. Keep in mind the following recommendations:

  • It’s not enough to just say you’re in pain, but specify from what point you experience it, how it’s affected you in different activities, if it’s sudden or not, how long you’ve been feeling it, etc.
  • You must locate with a finger the point where the pain starts.
  • Specify if the pain is localized or if it covers the whole leg.
  • You should also clarify if it hurts only one leg or both legs.

We’ve already told you that pain is very common in a lot of health conditions, even though it’s a very important symptom of sciatica. However, when you visit your doctor you should be clear and specific about what type of pain you have.

Doctor Jacob Teitelbaum (author of works such as Real Cause, Real Cure: The 9 Root Causes of the Most Common Health Problems and How to Solve Them) presents some key techniques to determine whether you have sciatica:

  • Use your thumb to anchor your fingers and push your fingers over your lower back muscles.
  • Try to find the points on your back that are causing you pain.
  • If the pain causes a slight jerk that goes all the way down to your toes, it’s very likely that you have sciatica.

4. If you pass this test

What you have to do is lie down and stretch your feet. With the help of another person, lift your leg, extended, between 30 and 70 degrees. Your partner’s the one who should lift your leg, as they’ll be your examiner.

If, after performing this test, you feel pain throughout the leg, behind the knee and down to the toes, it means that you most likely have sciatica.

Our recommendation is that you go to a specialist in physical therapy or a doctor so that they can perform this test. Keep in mind that making movements abruptly or incorrectly can aggravate or worsen symptoms.

Discover: Simple Exercises to Heal Sciatic Nerve Pain

5. Something else is happening to your body

A man showing his doctor a spot on his back.

Apart from back, knee, and leg pain, another symptom of sciatica are body changes. Maybe your intestines and bladder are losing control of their movements, for instance. According to doctors, this could be a sign that you need emergency surgery.

Alan Hilibrand, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS), states that this situation is uncommon. If you feel that your spinal column is putting a lot of pressure on the nerve that can affect your bladder and intestine, consult with your doctor. This damage could become permanent.

The good news: Your sciatica can go away

The good news is that sciatica goes away in 80% of cases. However, we still don’t know whether this is because a disc in the spine has moved back to its original place or whether the sciatic nerve is no longer being pinched.

What you can do while you suffer from sciatica to minimize the discomfort you feel is  to take anti-inflammatory drugs. You should also complete the physical therapy that your doctor prescribes.

However, although sciatica is temporary in most cases, the symptoms will probably last for more than 3 months. In any case, it’s always important to visit your doctor and follow their recommendations.

Keep in mind that physical therapy can be very helpful in many cases.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.