Are You at Risk for Sciatica Pain?

Sciatica can be a burden no matter who you talk to. Just the same, some people have a higher risk. Much of this is based on your lifestyle but other factors are at play, as well.

Sciatica refers to pain down one leg.

Age as Sciatica Risk Factor

One of the main risk factors for sciatica is getting older, as the spine - and the body in general - starts to experience degeneration. A number of age-related changes can bring on sciatica, for example, changes in your intervertebral discs, bone spurs and spinal stenosis.

Degeneration of the intervertebral disc usually starts around the age of 30, so the risk of developing sciatica begins around then, as well. Another condition, spinal stenosis, usually first crops up in people older than 50 and can cause sciatica. Meanwhile, arthritic changes in the spine, such as bone spurs, also increase the risk for sciatica in seniors.

But, overall, it's people between the ages of 30 to 50 who are the most at risk for sciatica. Because of work, social and sports activities, this age group tends to be very active in comparison with older age groups, which increases the likelihood of injury or other types of damage. Additionally, the discs themselves have begun their descent to vulnerability -- the older you get, the more resilience you've likely lost in your spinal discs.

A Sedentary Lifestyle

Sitting as a regular habit ups your sciatica risk. Activities (or lack thereof) include working at a computer, lots of driving, behaving like a couch potato, and the like. A big reason for this is that sitting compresses your spine and discs, which - depending on your's spines condition - may irritate a spinal nerve root. Another reason is that sitting may put pressure on the sciatic nerve directly, as in the case of piriformis syndrome.

Manual Labor and Your Sciatica Risk

Frequently lifting heavy loads and/or twisting the spine repeatedly is associated with disc herniation, which often results in lumbar radiculopathy. Lumbar radiculopathy is a term that describes the symptoms that happen when your spinal nerve root is irritated. Most people call these symptoms sciatica.

Another work-related risk factor is vibration. So, for example, if you or a loved one operates a jackhammer as part of her job, be aware that it may bring on sciatica or make existing sciatica worse.

Walkers and Runners

The two sports that are most likely to increase the risk for sciatica symptoms are walking and running. This is likely due to the repeated contraction of the piriformis muscle. During extended periods of walking and running, the piriformis muscle tightens to help you propel yourself forward. When the piriformis muscle becomes tight, it can cause irritation to the sciatic nerve, which runs under it. 

A 2002 Finnish study published in Spine Journal showed that walking is associated with the onset of sciatica symptoms, while jogging is associated with a continuation of symptoms. The study looked at 327 workers with sciatica, and 2,077 workers without sciatica.

Other Groups: Pregnant Women, Diabetics

People with diabetes are prone to nerve damage, including the sciatic nerve. This increases the diabetic patient's likelihood of experiencing sciatica.

And due to hormonal changes and changes in the position of the baby, the risk of sciatica is greatly increased during pregnancy, as well.

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Additional Reading
  • Bernard, B., M.D., M.P.H. Low Back Musculoskeletal Disorders: Evidence for Work Relatedness. Musculoskeletal Disorders and Workplace Factors - NIOSH Publication 97-141. July 2007.
  • Kendall, F., McCreary, E., & Provance, P. Muscles: Testing and Function with Posture and Pain. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins. 1993.
  • Kinser, C., & Colby, L. (2002). Therapeutic Exercise: Foundations and Techniques.Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.
  • Miranda, H., Viikari-Juntura, E., Martikainen, R., Takala, E.P., Riihimaki, H., Individual factors, occupational loading, and physical exercise as predictors of sciatica pain. Spine. May 2002.
  • NINDS. Piriformis Syndrome Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Web Last Updated: 2007.