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If you’ve ever had sciatica, you know it can be infuriating; no matter what position you shift to, you can’t seem to get the pain or numbness to go away.

Sciatica is a condition that causes pain in your lower back that shoots down to your hips, buttocks and legs. The condition is named for the sciatic nerve, which runs along that section of the body in both legs. As many as 4 out of 10 people experience sciatica in their lives, but only the most severe cases require treatment.

“Sciatica is usually caused by a herniated disk, bone spur on the spine or spinal stenosis, which occurs an area along the spine narrows and puts pressure on the spinal cord and nerves,” said Stanley G. Pugsley Jr., M.D., a Geisinger neurosurgeon.

Beyond just pain, some of the common symptoms are muscle weakness, numbness and tingling. It can express itself in different ways. Sometimes the pain might feel like an electric shock. Other times, it’s more of a burning sensation. Or it’s possible to have pain on one side of your body and numbness on the other.

While these symptoms may seem like they would require extensive treatment, sciatica usually improves over time. An over-the-counter pain medication such as aspirin will likely do the trick. You can also talk to your doctor about the possibility of physical therapy, or maybe even acupuncture, to relieve your symptoms.

And it may seem counterintuitive, but lying in bed probably won’t help. “Rather than staying in bed, it can be more effective to try stretches and positions that lower the pressure on the sciatic nerve,” said Dr. Pugsley.

However, for those with a more severe case of sciatica, it’s important to see a doctor. Otherwise, you run the risk of permanent nerve damage. You should see your doctor about treatment options if you’re experiencing symptoms such as:

  • You suddenly start experiencing a lot of pain in your legs and lower back
  • You lose feeling in a leg completely
  • You start experiencing sciatica symptoms as a result of a sudden injury or accident, such as a car crash
  • You start having trouble controlling your bladder and bowels

If your sciatica symptoms last for about six weeks, your doctor might recommend surgery, but it’s very rare for symptoms of sciatica to persist for that long.

There are a number of risk factors for sciatica. They include age – the older you get, the more prone you are to suffering spinal injuries that can lead to sciatica. People who are overweight put more stress on their spine, which can lead to sciatica and other physical ailments. A more sedentary lifestyle is also believed to have a correlation to sciatica; this can include people who drive for a living. On the other hand, people who have jobs that involve physical labor often develop sciatica. Pregnant women carry extra weight during their pregnancies, which puts them at greater risk. Lastly, diabetics have a higher risk of nerve damage, including sciatica.