Two common causes of back pain are arthritis and sciatica. While both affect the spine and back, they’re not the result of the same issue, and there are different treatments and outlooks for these conditions.

Back pain can come in many forms. It may feel like a sudden, sharp jolt; a throbbing, chronic pain; or possibly an achy stiffness that makes getting out of bed difficult.

Indeed, back pain is one of the most common ailments Americans face. It’s also a leading cause of disability. Chronic back pain costs Americans billions every year in treatment and emergency care.

But back pain shouldn’t be ignored. Identifying the likely cause can lead to helpful treatment and even relief.

This article will help you better understand the differences between arthritis and sciatica, two common causes of back pain, and how these two conditions are treated in an effort to ease the pain they can cause.

It’s true that arthritis of the spine and sciatica cause one similar symptom: pain. But from there, the symptoms of these two conditions are quite different. Treatment for them is different, too.

An illustration of the spine, depicting the difference between osteoarthritis and sciatica.Share on Pinterest
Illustration by Jason Hoffman

Arthritis in the spine

Arthritis is a term used to describe joint pain with inflammation in the body. Arthritis isn’t one disease. It includes several conditions that can impact the joints.

Ankylosing spondylitis is a type of arthritis that can affect the spine. But osteoarthritis is the most common cause of pain and stiffness in the back.

Osteoarthritis develops over time. With age, the cushioning cartilage and discs between the bones of the spine (known as vertebrae) begin to wear away. This reduces the space between the bones and can put pressure on the joints and ligaments in the spine. This is why osteoarthritis is sometimes called “wear and tear” arthritis.

The pain and stiffness that accompany osteoarthritis develop gradually in most cases. The changes to the spine are slow, so the pain is slow to develop, too. It is often a chronic disease, however, and the damage to the joints will continue.

Common symptoms of osteoarthritis of the spine include:

  • difficulty moving or restricted movement
  • stiffness
  • pain, often dull and aching
  • swelling
  • symptoms feeling worse after movement

Osteoarthritis of the spine can affect anyone, but it’s more common in people ages 60 and older. It also becomes more common the older you get.

If you had a back injury when you were younger, arthritis in the spine can develop earlier than the age of 60. That’s because the cartilage may be damaged and can break down sooner.

Overweight or obesity can also increase your risk of arthritis in the spine. The extra weight, especially in the abdomen, can put greater pressure on the joints of the spine. This speeds up the “wear and tear” damage.


Sciatica is a term used to describe any condition that causes inflammation or irritation of the sciatic nerve. This large nerve extends from near the low back into the hips, buttocks, and legs.

Sciatica is usually the result of a sudden change in the spine such as a slipped disc. This occurs when one of the discs or cushioning cartilage between the bones of the spine is injured. The soft, gelatinous portion of the inner disc breaks through, or slips through, the tougher outer portion.

The symptoms of sciatica usually show up suddenly. They may occur after a day of moving furniture or sleeping awkwardly on a couch or bed. The symptoms can be severe, even debilitating, but they also can resolve, even without treatment, in several weeks.

Common symptoms of sciatica include:

  • sharp, sudden pain
  • pain that extends from the lower back into the hip, thigh, and leg
  • weakness or numbness in the thighs and legs
  • symptoms may improve with movement

Sciatica is more common in people in their 40s and 50s, but it can affect anyone of any age, really. As people grow older, damage to the spine, such as arthritis, can also make sciatica more common.

Potential coexisting and possibly related conditions may occur with sciatica. These possible causes can include:

Yes, arthritis can cause sciatica. Osteoarthritis in the spine can damage and destroy the cushioning discs and cartilage between the bones of the spinal column. As the damage worsens, the sciatic nerve may become irritated or inflamed. The risk of a slipped discs is higher, too, and this increases the risk of sciatica.

Arthritis in the spine can also cause bone spurs to develop. These bony growths along the spine are small but can be jagged. These can put pressure on the lumbar nerves.

Yes, it’s possible to have both arthritis and sciatica at the same time — and all the pain and discomfort that accompany both conditions.

Arthritis causes ongoing, chronic damage to the spine. This puts the nerves around the spine at risk of inflammation and injury. This includes the sciatic nerve.

If you have arthritis in your spine, getting the right diagnosis and treatment may help reduce symptoms of the condition. It may also help lower the risk of a slipped disc or another injury that can lead to sciatica.

Pain that comes on slowly may feel like a typical part of aging. Sudden pain, however, often drives people to get emergency care. But both conditions need a proper diagnosis from a medical professional so you can get the right treatment and prevent further damage.

Treatment for arthritis

Arthritis treatment aims to lower pain and inflammation while improving mobility.

Medication is a common treatment option for arthritis. These medications can include over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers such as ibuprofen.

In more severe cases, prescription muscle relaxants may be prescribed. Pain-relieving opioids can be used, too, but these are frequently only prescribed for short periods of time.

In addition to pain management, a healthcare professional will likely recommend home exercises or physical therapy. These treatments can teach you movements and stretches that may help lower pain and provide relief.

Aerobics, weight training, yoga, and resistance exercise can also be used at home or with a physical therapist to strengthen the muscles of your core and spine and hopefully lower future inflammation and injury.

In rare cases, surgery may be needed to repair discs or remove bone spurs.

Treatment for sciatica

Even without treatment, sciatica can resolve on its own in a few weeks, but because the pain can be so debilitating, treatment is typically needed.

Treatment for the symptoms of sciatica include pain-relieving medications, both OTC and prescription. Muscle relaxants may be prescribed to lower pain, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can help lower inflammation.

Gentle stretches may help relieve the pain and tingling in the back and legs. It’s usually advisable to avoid any activities that worsen the pain such as sitting or standing for long periods of time.

Hot and cold packs can also be helpful. Alternating between these two may help lower inflammation and pain.

In some cases, steroid injections may be needed for immediate relief. Surgery may also be required if a structural issue in the spine or pelvis is putting pressure on a lumbar nerve.

Back pain shouldn’t be taken for granted as you age. Sure, wear and tear on the bones of the spine and hips can cause pain and stiffness, but debilitating pain isn’t a certainty.

Both sciatica and osteoarthritis can impact your spine and, with age, are more common. But both conditions can be treated, and in some cases, the pain and symptoms they cause can even be prevented.

To get the right treatment, you first need an accurate diagnosis. So, if you’re experiencing pain or stiffness in your back, make an appointment to visit a doctor or healthcare professional. Getting the right type of treatment can provide relief, lower pain, and improve your mobility and quality of life.