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How Long Does Sciatica Last?

By Dr. Brian Paris

X-Ray of hip and sciatica nerve

If you’re dealing with a painful sciatica flare-up, you likely have one question on the top of your mind: How long does sciatica last?

I have good news for you if this is the first time you’re experiencing sciatica pain.

Acute episodes generally resolve relatively quickly, usually within a few weeks.

But here’s the rub…

If you don’t identify the root cause of your sciatica pain, there’s a high probability your first episode won’t be your last.

And unfortunately, sciatica flare-up recovery time for subsequent episodes is much longer… and it requires more intervention and a far more comprehensive sciatica treatment plan.

That’s why it’s so important to understand the difference between acute and chronic sciatica, and how you can minimize your chances of further flare-ups down the road.

How long sciatica pain lasts: acute sciatica

Acute sciatica comes on suddenly and resolves quickly, and usually responds well to self-care measures and home treatments. This type of sciatica lasts on average a few weeks.

(Please note: If your pain is severe and it’s accompanied by muscle weakness and/or loss of bowel or bladder control, you should seek the advice of a medical professional.)

Most mainstream medical doctors will recommend treatment options like over-the-counter painkillers such as NSAIDs.

NSAIDs, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, include popular pain pills like ibuprofen or naproxen.

While these pain medications may help ease your discomfort in the short-term, they come with potentially serious side effects, including an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

In fact, one recent study found that using ibuprofen — perhaps the most popular OTC NSAID on the market — for as little as a week increased the risk of heart attack by as much as 75 percent. The researchers also found that the risk of having a serious cardiovascular event was greatest within the first month of use.

For short-term pain relief, you’re better off using a combination of natural pain relievers, and alternating between cold therapy and heat therapy.

And most importantly, you need to identify the condition that caused the acute episode in the first place… I cover that more later in this article.

How long sciatica pain lasts: chronic sciatica

If the root cause of your sciatica isn’t addressed early on, the chances are extremely high that you’ll develop chronic sciatica: recurring flare-ups that last longer and require more extensive treatment.

It’s not a matter of IF you’ll have sciatic nerve pain again, it’s a matter of WHEN.

At that point, your doctor or healthcare provider may prescribe stronger painkillers, take a variety of imaging tests, or refer you for physical therapy.

In extreme cases, the treatment options become even more invasive… maybe steroid injections … and in some cases, surgery may even be recommended.

Now, I’m not a fan of putting your body through the trauma of surgery unless there are no other options.

And when it comes to sciatica, that’s just not the case.

In fact, one study found that the outcomes for people who chose nonsurgical, conservative treatments to relieve sciatica pain were nearly identical to those who underwent surgery at 12 months, and were comparable at three and six months.

The risk of the surgery itself and potential complications are not the only reasons I don’t support it as a go-to solution to relieve sciatica pain.

While the surgery can help ease the pain, it does not address the underlying issue that caused the sciatica in the first place.

It’s critical to not only treat the pain, but the underlying condition responsible for the pain.

If you don’t, you will likely find that sciatica is a lifelong condition.

And that means a life spent managing chronic pain.

Sciatica symptoms

The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest single nerve in your body, running from your lower spine down each leg and ending in each foot.

If you’ve ever known anyone who’s had sciatica pain — or if you’ve been unlucky enough to have experienced sciatica yourself — you may be familiar with the “symptoms.”

Pain that extends from your lower (lumbar) spine to your rear and down the back of your thigh and/or calf, usually just on one side of the body.

Many people complain of leg pain and have trouble walking.

The pain may be a mild ache, or it may feel like a sharp, burning sensation. For some people, sciatica pain can be downright debilitating.

Some people also have numbness, tingling or muscle weakness.

The exact location of your symptoms will depend where the sciatic nerve is pinched.

But here’s something to keep in mind: Sciatica is not the real cause of that pain. It’s not a diagnosis.

Sciatica refers to the pain, numbness and other symptoms caused by compression or inflammation of the sciatic nerve.

In other words, sciatica is a symptom of an underlying problem — a problem that affects your sciatic nerve.

4 most common sciatica causes

Sciatica is almost always caused by one of the following conditions:

1. Piriformis syndrome

The piriformis muscle is a flat, band-like muscle located near the pelvis, sacrum, a lower part of the spinal column, and your gluteus minimus.

It helps your hip rotate and abduct, which is necessary for walking or running.

Piriformis syndrome is a neuromuscular condition that develops when this muscle compresses the sciatic nerve, causing it to become irritated.

2. Herniated discs

If you’ve been told you have a herniated disc, a slipped disc, a prolapsed disc, a bulging disc, a ruptured disc, or even degenerative disc disease, it’s essentially the same thing. There’s no single standard term for this condition.

A bulging disc occurs when the outermost part of one of your spinal discs begins to weaken and the inner soft part starts to press outward, creating an outward bulge.

When the inside material, called the nucleus pulposus, breaks through the disc’s annulus — the tough outer wall — you have a herniation.

If this protrusion touches your sciatic nerve, you have sciatic pain.

The location of the bulging disc, and where the sciatic nerve is pinched, will determine where you’ll feel the pain…

3. Spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a condition in which the spinal canal narrows, compressing or “squeezing” the spinal cord and nerves inside.

For some people, spinal stenosis is congenital, caused by imperfections in the development of the spine.

Other causes include a herniated disc, osteoporosis, a tumor, or calcification, which is often the result of nutrient imbalances in the diet.

Another often overlooked cause of spinal stenosis is a build-up of fibrin (scar tissue) brought on by the reduction in proteolytic enzymes in the body as we age.

4. Isthmic Spondylolisthesis

Isthmic spondylolisthesis occurs when one of your spinal discs slips out of alignment and on top of the one below it.

This condition develops as a result of a stress fracture to a small piece of bone that connects the two joints on the back of the spine, called the pars interarticularis.

This misalignment can cause the sciatic nerve to become pinched, leading to sciatic pain.

Here’s what I want you to understand…

Each of the four conditions I listed above has an underlying cause, too: muscle imbalances.

In fact, in nearly every case of sciatica, muscle imbalances are the primary cause of the pressure being placed on the sciatic nerve…

Don’t be surprised if you have not heard this from your doctor. In fact, your doctor probably doesn’t know much, if anything, about muscle imbalances.

Doctors are trained to treat symptoms, not the underlying causes of those symptoms.

This treatment option will help eliminate your sciatica pain

It took me years of research to learn the true root cause of most back pain issues (including sciatica).

Addressing muscle imbalances is the most important step you MUST take if your goal is lasting pain relief.

Simply put, a muscle imbalance occurs when one muscle (or group of muscles) works harder than they should, while other muscles don’t work hard enough. This can eventually lead to sciatica nerve pain.

You see, the muscles in your body work in balanced symmetry — much like the wheels of a car.

When the wheels are out of balance, you’ll begin to notice uneven wear on the tires. The car will start to pull to one side… you’ll get poor gas mileage… and you run the risk of doing permanent, of a complete tire blowout.

The same is true with the muscles in your body.

When some muscles don’t function as they should, the others have to pick up the slack. And that throws them completely out of whack.

And when your muscles are out of balance, they pull your bones and joints out of their normal position — and this places them under constant and uneven stress and strain.

And these muscle imbalances are the hidden cause of nearly every case of back pain you’re experiencing — including the conditions that lead to sciatica pain.

The key to fixing the root causes of your sciatic pain requires some additional lifestyle changes, which will benefit you in the long run in many ways.

Along with fixing your muscle imbalances, you should choose a diet that includes foods that reduce inflammation in your body.

These lifestyle changes may seem like more work than popping Advil every time you have a flare-up, but they will provide lasting relief from sciatica pain.

Final thoughts and key takeaways

The frequency and duration of your sciatica pain depend on how and when you choose to treat it. But in all cases, you must treat the underlying issue or you will almost certainly face sciatic nerve pain flare-ups in the future.

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