How Sciatica Is Treated

Treating sciatica—symptoms caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve, which originates in the lower back and extends down through the buttocks and the back of each leg—usually involves conservative measures such as gentle exercise and stretching, application of ice and/or heat, and anti-inflammatory medication. Although there are more aggressive approaches to treating severe cases of sciatica, such as spinal injections or surgery, it's rarely necessary to use them.

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

It may seem counterintuitive, but if your healthcare provider determines you have sciatica, they are likely to recommend that you move as much as possible. Movement helps maintain function, while bed rest or being sedentary can result in aches and pains in other areas of the body. This doesn't necessarily mean you should hit the gym: walking and gentle stretching to the extent that you can tolerate these activities is generally sufficient.

Gentle heat or cold treatment may also help. When you first experience sciatica pain, apply cold packs to the tender area for 20 minutes at a time, several times per day. After a few days, switch to a hot pack or heating pad for 20 minutes at a time. If pain continues, alternate between heat and cold.

More than 80% of cases of sciatica resolve in several weeks with conservative treatment.

Close up unhealthy mature woman touching back, sitting on bed
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Physical Therapy

Targeted exercises can often help relieve sciatica pain. A physical therapist can provide you with exercises that are appropriate for you and your particular situation. For some conditions that cause sciatica, certain types of exercise may cause more harm than good.

Stretching and strengthening exercises that target the muscles of the lower back, abdomen, and thighs can help alleviate the symptoms of sciatica. A few beneficial exercises to help decrease pain associated with sciatica (depending on the cause) include:

Over-the-Counter Therapies

To relieve pain and reduce inflammation, your healthcare provider may recommend over-the-counter (OTC) Tylenol (acetaminophen) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as Advil (ibuprofen), Naprosyn (naproxen), or aspirin.

Check with your healthcare provider before giving aspirin to children or teens under 18: it is associated with a risk of a serious condition called Reye syndrome.

Prescription Medications

If OTC pain medications don't bring relief, your healthcare provider may prescribe a short course of a stronger prescription pain reliever. Other types of prescription medications sometimes used to treat sciatica include muscle relaxants such as Flexeril (cyclobenzaprine), tricyclic antidepressants, or anti-seizure drugs.

Both OTC and prescription medications may have limited value in relieving sciatica. A 2012 review of studies found only low-quality evidence that they were effective in either the short term or the intermediate term.

Surgeries and Specialist-Driven Procedures

Some episodes of sciatica may require more invasive treatments. These are usually done only after you haven't gotten relief from conservative treatment.

Injections with a corticosteroid into the epidural area of the spine might be used to reduce inflammation of the spinal nerve roots. This is an outpatient procedure that is given under local anesthesia. It can provide relief for three months or longer. Studies vary regarding the efficacy of such injections for the treatment of sciatica due to the multiple conditions that can lead to symptoms.

Surgery to address the underlying cause of sciatica may sometimes be worth considering if conservative treatment does not relieve pain after three months. Surgeries to treat sciatica include minimally invasive microdiscectomy to remove pieces of a herniated disc or other types of procedures, such as laminectomy, in which the roof of the spinal canal is removed. Recovery from these procedures may take three to six months or longer.

Emergency surgery is required if you begin to have severe symptoms of a syndrome called cauda equina, which is characterized by loss of bladder and/or bowel control and loss of sensation in the area that would be in contact with a saddle. If cauda equina syndrome is not treated in time, it can result in permanent nerve damage, paralysis, and loss of function.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

People with sciatica might turn to complementary therapies for pain relief. Acupuncture has been the focus of several studies, some of which have found beneficial results. However, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines for treating low back pain and sciatica found the evidence for acupuncture to be of low quality and therefore do not recommend it.

Spinal manipulation (osteopathic or chiropractic) is also sought by some people to help relieve sciatica. There is a small amount of evidence that it is beneficial. If you have sciatica and would like to explore natural remedies, it's advisable to discuss this with your healthcare provider beforehand.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Cleveland Clinic. Sciatica: management and treatment.

  4. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Sciatica.

  5. Pinto RZ, Maher CG, Ferreira ML, et al. Drugs for relief of pain in patients with sciatica: systematic review and meta-analysisBMJ. 2012;344:e497. doi:10.1136/bmj.e497

  6. Pinto RZ, Maher CG, Ferreira ML, et al. Epidural corticosteroid injections in the management of sciatica: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157(12):865-877. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-157-12-201212180-00564

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Additional Reading

By Laura Inverarity, DO
 Laura Inverarity, PT, DO, is a current board-certified anesthesiologist and former physical therapist.