Sciatica is a pain that starts in the lower back. It travels through the hips and buttocks and down the legs. It occurs when nerve roots that make up the sciatic nerve become pinched or compressed. Sciatica usually affects only one side of the body.

Sciatica can be acute or chronic. An acute episode may last between one and two weeks and usually resolves itself in a few weeks. It’s fairly common to experience some numbness for a while after the pain has subsided. You may also have sciatic episodes a handful of times a year.

Acute sciatica may eventually turn into chronic sciatica. This means the pain exists pretty regularly. Chronic sciatica is a life-long condition. It doesn’t currently respond well to treatment, but the pain from chronic sciatica is often less severe than the acute form.

For many people, sciatica responds well to self-care. Rest for a couple of days after a flare-up begins, but don’t wait too long before resuming activity. Long periods of inactivity will actually make your symptoms worse.

Applying hot or cold packs to your lower back may provide temporary relief. You can also try these six stretches to help relieve sciatic pain.

Over-the-counter medication, like aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil), may help reduce inflammation, swelling, and alleviate some of your pain.

If your symptoms are severe and home remedies aren’t reducing your pain, or if your pain is getting worse, see your doctor. They might prescribe medications to relieve your symptoms, such as:

Your doctor may also suggest that you attend physical therapy after your symptoms improve. Physical therapy can help prevent future flare-ups by strengthening your core and back muscles.

You doctor might also suggest steroid injections. When injected into the area surrounding the affected nerve, steroids can reduce inflammation and pressure on the nerve. You can only receive a limited number of steroid injections, though, since there’s a risk of severe side effects.

Surgery may be recommended as a last resort if your pain hasn’t responded to other treatments. It may also be an option if your sciatica is causing loss of bowel or bladder control.

There are some things you can do to prevent future sciatica flare-ups:

  • Exercise regularly to maintain strength in your back.
  • When sitting, maintain a good posture.
  • Avoid bending over to lift heavy objects. Instead, squat down to pick things up.
  • Practice good posture when standing for long periods of time, and wear supportive shoes.
  • Maintain a healthy diet. Obesity and diabetes are risk factors for sciatica.

Call your doctor if:

  • your symptoms aren’t improving with self-care
  • the flare-up has lasted longer than a week
  • the pain is more severe than it has been with previous flare-ups or is gradually worsening

Seek emergency medical help if the pain has occurred immediately following a traumatic injury, such as a car accident, or if you’re having trouble controlling your bladder or bowels.

In sciatica, the pain radiates from the lower back into the leg. In back pain, discomfort remains in the lower back.

There are many other conditions with symptoms similar to sciatica. These include:

This is why it’s important to see your doctor for a full diagnosis. Your doctor can then work with you to create an appropriate treatment plan.

A 2008 review estimates between 50 and 80 percent of women experience lower back pain in pregnancy, but it’s highly unlikely to actually be sciatica.

Occasionally the position of your baby can add pressure to the sciatic nerve, leading to sciatica. Depending on whether your baby’s position changes, the pain may last for the remainder of your pregnancy, come and go, or disappear. It should fully resolve after your baby is born.

Sciatica in pregnancy doesn’t indicate any problems other than pain and discomfort for the mother. Prenatal massage or prenatal yoga may help relieve some of your discomfort. You can also try one of these other drug-free treatments for sciatica during pregnancy.

Sciatica is a painful condition. It can make it more difficult to perform daily tasks. You might have severe pain but relatively infrequent attacks, or you may have less severe but constant sciatic pain.

There are many ways to relieve the symptoms of sciatica. In most cases, the pain is completely alleviated within a couple of weeks.

Talk to your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve with home treatment, last a long time, or you’re having difficulty completing your daily tasks. Your doctor can help come up with a treatment plan that will work for you.