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Sciatica

Diagnosis & Expected Duration

Monday, Aug. 27, 2007; 7:47 PM

Copyright Harvard Health Publications 2007

Diagnosis

Table of Contents

Your doctor will review your symptoms and your complete medical history, and ask if you have low back pain that spreads to the leg and if you have muscle weakness in your leg or foot. He or she also will want to know if you've had any injury, fever, problems controlling your bowels or bladder, if you've had cancer of any sort in the past and whether you've been losing weight. These questions are important because if these symptoms are present, the cause of sciatica could be a serious condition, such as a bone fracture or infection.

Your doctor will examine you, paying special attention to your spine and legs. To look for problems in your spinal column and related nerves, your doctor may ask you to perform a series of tests that will check your muscle strength, reflexes and flexibility. Your doctor may send you for X-rays, a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to check for problems in the spinal vertebrae (backbones) that may be irritating or compressing your sciatic nerve.

The diagnosis is based primarily on your symptoms, although a physical examination is important to look for evidence of nerve injury or another explanation for the symptoms. However, a normal physical examination is common in people with sciatica. While testing may be important in some cases, the diagnosis can be made even when all test results are normal.

Expected Duration

Sciatica usually goes away on its own after a period of rest and limited activities. Most people with sciatica feel better within six weeks. Pain that lasts longer than six to 12 weeks may require the attention of your physican and if symptoms are severe or prolonged, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in treating back pain.

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