If you’re experiencing sciatica, you’re probably wondering: how long will it last? How long does a sciatica flare up last?
Facing these sometimes debilitating pains caused by sciatica, it’s completely understandable to wonder about its recovery time. However, precise information on this topic is scarce.
With this blog post, I hope to provide you with the most accurate information possible on the subject!
As usual, I draw on my experience as a physiotherapist. And data from clinical studies following people with sciatic nerve pain.
Enjoy your reading 🙂!
Last update: July 2023
- When do we talk about sciatica?
- How do we determine the average recovery time of sciatica?
- How long does sciatica last in terms of pain and discomfort?
- Average recovery time
- Maximum recovery time ?
- Does the pain only decrease or can it fluctuate?
- Does sciatica go away on its own?
- What is the fastest way to cure sciatica?
- How long is the work leave for sciatica?
When do we talk about sciatica?
Sciatica is a condition characterized by:
- Pain in the lower back (also known as “lumbosciatica,” it’s the same thing),
- that radiates along the sciatic nerve down to the leg.
The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the human body. It originates from the lower back, passes through the buttocks, travels down the leg, and ends in the foot.
That’s why when you have sciatica, you may experience pain, discomfort, or weakness in one or more of these areas.
The sciatic nerve is formed by the nerve roots (at the level of the spinal cord):
- and S5.
That’s why you might see terms like “lumbosciatica L5S1” or “L4” in your X-ray or MRI reports. You may also come across the term “lumbar radiculopathy,” which means “disease of a lumbar nerve root.”
Another terminological point: Some research teams discourage the use of the term “sciatica” without further clarification of its implications. The term “leg pain related to the spine” is suggested as a generic term (Schmid 2023). I understand the motivation behind this, but there’s still work to be done to remove the term “sciatica” from common language 🙂!
Symptoms of sciatica
Here are the main symptoms of sciatica:
- Pain in the lower back that can radiate down the leg and into the foot.
- Numbness and tingling in the leg.
- Muscle weakness in the affected leg.
Pain that worsens:
- When coughing or sneezing.
- When sitting or standing for long periods.
- When walking or running. Inability to control movements of the affected leg or foot.
Diagnosis of sciatica
The diagnosis is made by consulting a healthcare professional (doctor, physiotherapist).
This professional will ask you questions and perform an examination.
They will assess if you have one or more typical symptoms of sciatica. They will also rule out other conditions that may have similar symptoms but require different treatment, which is called differential diagnosis.
In most cases, no further tests (such as X-rays, MRI, or CT scans) are necessary to diagnosis sciatica.
Why? Because these tests will not provide additional guidance to:
- Recommend one treatment over another.
- Provide a more precise prognosis regarding the progression of pain and the duration of sciatica.
Causes of sciatica flare up
Here are the most common causes of leg sciatica. All of them result in compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve.
- Disc herniation: Part of the intervertebral disc slips through its outer covering.
- Spinal stenosis: Narrowing of the space between the vertebrae.
- Spondylolisthesis: Forward displacement of one vertebra in relation to the one below it.
- Spondylosis: Development of bony outgrowths on the vertebrae.
- Lumbar sprain: Stretching or tearing of the ligaments in the spinal column.
- Tumor or infection: These causes are very rare but can lead to compression or inflammation of the sciatic nerve. They are usually accompanied by specific symptoms that are not easily missed.
Additional tests may sometimes help identify the underlying cause. However, as I mentioned earlier, they may not be necessary as the treatment approach may not differ significantly!
How do we determine the average recovery time of sciatica?
You have several ways to get an idea of how long a sciatica flare up typically lasts:
- You can ask your friends or family members who have experienced it how long it lasted for them.
- You can consult with your doctor or physiotherapist and ask them about the average duration based on their patient population.
- You can review the findings of clinical studies that follow hundreds or thousands of people with and without sciatica over a period of years, tracking the progression of their symptoms when sciatica occurs.
You will likely find that the third option provides the most reliable approximation. Here’s why:
- Your friends or family members may not remember the exact progression of their symptoms, and their experience may not be representative of sciatica in general. The experiences of one or two individuals are not a large enough sample to form a precise idea of the duration of a health issue.
- Healthcare professionals have access to a broader network of patients, which is better, but not all patients necessarily provide updates when they recover. Therefore, estimations of the duration can be biased.
- Studies help to mitigate these biases, although they are never perfect.
That’s why I will primarily rely on studies. Since sciatica is a very common problem (40% of the global population will experience it at some point in their lives!), we are fortunate to have a wealth of information on its progression.
How long does sciatica last in terms of pain and discomfort?
I’m going to provide you with some information about the average and maximum duration of leg sciatica.
Average recovery time of sciatica
You may be interested in knowing the specific statistics regarding the recovery time of sciatica. I will provide you with that information.
However, please keep in mind that these figures likely overestimate the intensity and timeline of pain for the following reason: many people never seek healthcare professionals when they experience back and leg pain, especially if their pain quickly disappears. Therefore, they are not included in studies that track the progression of lumbosciatica. The individuals included in the studies are likely those with a poorer prognosis than others.
Here are the figures from a study involving 609 participants (Konstantinou 2018):
- 4 months after the onset of symptoms, discomfort and pain decreased by an average of 25%;
- at 1 year, 55% of people no longer experienced any pain.
There are data available for larger populations, but they also include people who experience only low back pain. Here is what they indicate (Menezes Costa 2012):
- 36% of people no longer have any pain within a maximum of 2 weeks;
- 34% no longer have any pain within a maximum of 12 weeks;
- 14% experience a decrease in pain but it does not completely disappear within 12 weeks;
- 10% experience fluctuating pain (decreasing and then increasing) within 12 weeks;
- 5% have persistent high-level pain for 12 weeks.
In other words, you have a 1 in 3 chance of being completely pain-free within a maximum of 2 weeks, and a 1 in 2 chance at 1 year. In 95% of cases, your pain will decrease. If you are among the remaining 5%, it does not necessarily mean you have a serious condition, although the pain can be troublesome.
Maximum recovery time of sciatica ?
There is no known maximum recovery time of sciatica. Among the millions of people who experience sciatica each year, a very small portion will still have back or leg pain after one year or more. This is referred to as chronic lumbosciatica.
However, it is better to see the glass as half full: it is much more likely that your sciatica will last for 2 weeks or, in any case, less than 3 months.
Does the pain only decrease or can it fluctuate?
When we experience pain in a certain area, we often expect the pain to:
- suddenly disappear completely,
- gradually disappear.
We don’t expect it to fluctuate. For example, if the pain reappears after it had decreased, it can be concerning. We fear that a new problem has arisen.
However, this is something that regularly happens, and it is “normal”.
There are various different trajectories of pain evolution, particularly for sciatica. When attempting to classify the pain evolution in individuals with back pain, researchers have identified up to 12 possible trajectories!
If your pain fluctuates (decreases and then reappears), it is something that commonly occurs with sciatica. It does not mean that your condition is worsening.
Does sciatica go away on its own?
Yes, sciatica can go away on its own. In many cases, sciatica resolves with time.
The body has a natural ability to heal, and the underlying causes of sciatica, such as herniated discs or muscle tightness, can often improve over time.
Treatments are also available. These often tend to relieve symptoms, but not necessarily reduce the duration of the sciatica attack. Especially as pain is a complex phenomenon that is difficult to treat.
What is the fastest way to cure sciatica?
How to speed up the healing of sciatica? Despite decades of studies on this topic, it’s challenging to identify treatments or tricks that have a high likelihood of accelerating the healing process (at least more than any placebo would).
Nevertheless, the two best things you can do are:
- Believe in your own self-healing abilities, regardless of what you do.
- Continue engaging in exercise that you can tolerate (such as walking, household chores, DIY projects, gardening, etc.), as long as the pain remains manageable while doing them.
In fact, international recommendations for managing back pain or sciatica suggest the following approach (Furlong 2022):
- Reassure the patient.
- Advise simple pain relievers.
- Provide self-management strategies for the problem.
- Offer advice and information about the condition.
There is no “miracle treatment” (like TENS), “magic exercise” or any strictly prohibited or fabulous natural remedy against sciatica. While our brain is drawn to such propositions, when rigorously evaluated for their effectiveness, they unfortunately do not hold up.
How long is the work leave for sciatica?
There is no standard duration for work leave regardless of the condition. It is not the health problem itself that determines whether or not you can take time off work, but rather its impact on your physical or mental abilities. And, of course, the nature of your job.
For people with sciatica:
- Some may not require any work leave.
- Some may take a day or two off.
- Some may need several days or weeks of work leave.
- A minority may become disabled after several years. Sciatica can be recognized as an occupational disease if it is related to heavy lifting during work.
The French National Health Insurance in collaboration with the High Health Authority provides the following estimated durations after which the majority of people should be able to return to work after experiencing sciatica:
- Sedentary work: 2 days.
- Light physical work: 5 days.
- Moderate physical work: 21 days.
- Heavy physical work: 35 days.
In the United States 🇺🇸, the rate of return to work after work-related sciatica is only 66% two years after the onset of symptoms, and between 67% and 85% ten years after the onset of symptoms (Atlas 2005; Grovle 2013).
THE BOTTOM LINE
Duration of how long sciatica lasts: there is a 1 in 3 chance of being completely pain-free within a maximum of 2 weeks, and a 1 in 2 chance at 1 year.
Here’s what I wanted to tell you about this! I wish you a very good recovery! Do you have any comments or questions? Your comments are welcome 🙂 !
If you feel the need to learn more about the recovery period after sciatica, I wrote this guide in eBook format:
You may also like:
- How Long Does Low Back Strain Last?
- How Long Does Cervical Radiculopathy Last ?
- Pain, numbness, and loss of feeling in feet and toes.
Konstantinou K, Dunn KM, Ogollah R, Lewis M, van der Windt D, Hay EM; ATLAS Study Team. Prognosis of sciatica and back-related leg pain in primary care: the ATLAS cohort. Spine J. 2018 Jun;18(6):1030-1040. doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2017.10.071. Epub 2017 Nov 21. PMID: 29174459; PMCID: PMC5984249.
The prognosis of acute and persistent low-back pain: a meta-analysis Luciola da C. Menezes Costa, Christopher G. Maher, Mark J. Hancock, James H. McAuley, Robert D. Herbert, Leonardo O.P. Costa CMAJ Aug 2012, 184 (11) E613-E624; DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.111271.
Furlong B, Etchegary H, Aubrey-Bassler K, Swab M, Pike A, Hall A. Patient education materials for non-specific low back pain and sciatica: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal.pone.0274527. PLoS One. 2022 Oct 12;17(10):e0274527. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0274527. PMID: 36223377; PMCID: PMC9555681.
Rasmussen‐Barr E, Held U, Grooten WJA, Roelofs PDDM, Koes BW, van Tulder MW, Wertli MM. Non‐steroidal anti‐inflammatory drugs for sciatica. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2016, Issue 10. Art. No.: CD012382. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD012382. Accessed 19 January 2023.
Ameli.fr. Sciatique (hors sciatique paralysante ou hyperalgique et syndrome de la queue de cheval).
Atlas SJ, Keller RB, Wu YA, Deyo RA, Singer DE. Long-term outcomes of surgical and nonsurgical management of sciatica secondary to a lumbar disc herniation: 10 year results from the maine lumbar spine study. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2005 Apr 15;30(8):927-35. doi: 10.1097/01.brs.0000158954.68522.2a. PMID: 15834338.
Grøvle L, Haugen AJ, Natvig B, et al.. The prognosis of self-reported paresthesia and weakness in disc-related sciatica. Eur Spine J 2013;22:2488–95. 10.1007/s00586-013-2871-9
Schmid AB, Tampin B, Baron R, Finnerup NB, Hansson P, Hietaharju A, Konstantinou K, Lin CC, Markman J, Price C, Smith BH, Slater H. Recommendations for terminology and the identification of neuropathic pain in people with spine-related leg pain. Outcomes from the NeuPSIG working group. Pain. 2023 May 25. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002919. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 37235637.
By Nelly Darbois
I love to write articles that are based on my experience as a physiotherapist and extensive research in the international scientific literature.
I live in the French Alps 🌞❄️ where I work as a physiotherapist and scientific editor for my own website, where you are.