Sciatic Nerve: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 07, 2022
5 min read

If you’ve ever felt aches or pains that radiate down your legs, you may have been dealing with sciatic nerve pain. The sciatic nerve is the biggest in your body and starts in your back and goes down your leg to your heel. The sciatic nerve affects the muscles in your thigh down to your foot. 

Your sciatic nerve is about 1 centimeter wide and extends down your leg. The nerve does widen a little further down your leg. At its thickest, the sciatic nerve is 2 centimeters wide. 

The sciatic nerve originates from the spinal nerves L4, L5, S1, S2, and S3. Your sciatic nerve extends lower than your vertebrae, and all these nerve fibers join and make the sciatic nerve.From there, your sciatic nerve extends through your pelvis and down your glutes and thighs. The nerve goes all the way to the heel.  

One of the main sciatic nerve functions is to connect your central nervous system to your legs. You use your sciatic nerve to help bend your knees, toes, and feet. 

The sciatic nerve has two different functions, motor and sensory. The motor functions of your sciatic nerve help move the muscles in your legs and feet. The sensory functions help you feel things in your legs. One area your sciatic nerve doesn’t branch into is your glutes.  

An essential function of the sciatic nerve is bringing feeling to the skin of your foot and lower leg. The sciatic nerve branches and affects different sections of your legs, including your toes, foot, and calf.

Your sciatic nerve is one large nerve that stems from your spinal cord. The sciatic nerve branches out into different areas of your glutes and legs. Then the sciatic nerve branches into more nerves with motor and sensory neurons.

The sciatic nerve turns into two main branches down your leg. One becomes the tibial nerve, and the other becomes the peroneal nerve. These two sciatic nerve branches cover the front and back of your leg and foot. 

The first sign of sciatic nerve problems is radiating pain from your lower back or glutes down one leg. To know if it’s related to your sciatic nerve, you should note if the pain is coming from your glutes and your leg. Pain coming from just one of those areas may be related to something else. 

Sciatic nerve pain can be intense and so bad that it can keep you from moving. When dealing with sciatic nerve pain, you may be unable to stand straight or move your legs. The pain can make moving unbearable, and in some cases, you may feel complete numbness in your affected leg. This pain is called sciatica

What is sciatica? 

Sciatica is a condition that happens when you have a herniated disk, or there’s a pinch or pressure on the part of your sciatic nerve. These issues can cause inflammation and pain in your legs. 

Other signs of a problem with your sciatic nerve are numbness or a “pins and needles” sensation in your legs or feet. In some cases of severe sciatic nerve problems, you may have weakness in a specific leg and an inability to move your affected foot. 

If you’re dealing with a pinched nerve, you may notice the pain worsening when you bend over or lift things. Sitting down and twisting may also be painful. If a cough or a sneeze sets off pain in your back, you may have a problem with your sciatic nerve.

If you damage the cushioning around your spine, your spinal nerves can also become damaged. Even an injection into your glutes can affect your sciatic nerve if it comes in contact with it. Trauma to the sciatic nerve can cause lasting pain in your hip and your leg. 

Any damage or irritation to your sciatic nerve can cause many different symptoms. The sciatic nerve can cause a lot of pain if something is wrong. Sciatica is the primary condition that indicates a problem with your sciatic nerve.

A pinched nerve or nerve compression can irritate the disc tissue in your back and cause a reaction near your sciatic nerve. This is another cause of sciatica. 

Spinal stenosis is a condition that affects your sciatic nerve. This condition narrows your spinal nerve canal and irritates the nerve. Causes of spinal stenosis include: 

  • Hip surgery
  • A broken bone or muscle injury
  • Tumors or infections around your spinal cord
  • Pregnancy

If you’re having sciatic nerve pain, your doctor must use your medical history and a physical to diagnose you. Once you’ve received your diagnosis, your doctor can use imaging tests like X-rays and MRIs to find the cause of your sciatic pain. 

Dealing with sciatica or other sciatic nerve pain can be challenging. That’s why your doctor may recommend physical therapy. Physical therapy can help you work through a program to prevent future injuries. Physical therapy will also help you correct your posture, improve your range of motion, and strengthen your core.

Another important part of protecting your sciatic nerve is giving yourself enough time to heal from a previous injury. Moving while recovering helps support your spine and strengthen your muscles. Staying on bed rest can have the opposite of a healing effect on your sciatica pain. If moving does cause you pain, talk to your doctor about what’s best for you. 

Good posture is crucial for protecting your sciatic nerve. If you're having nerve pain, look at how you're standing or sitting. If you're slouching, pull your shoulders down and back. If you're sitting most of the day, get up and walk around. Don't stay sitting for too long.   

Sciatica can be painful to deal with and may seem alarming at first. But sciatic pain is common, and there are steps you can take to prevent it.