Recovering from sciatica isn’t always a straight path. Sciatica pain can feel better some days and worse on others, making it tricky to tell when your sciatica is getting better. But with the right back and spine treatments, you can alleviate your symptoms and get back on track. In some cases, you might even be able to cure sciatica permanently.
So how can you tell if your sciatica is improving? Fortunately, there are a few surefire signs that your condition is waning, leaving you feeling much more comfortable in day-to-day life.
Here, you’ll learn the seven signs that sciatica is improving, plus find out more about sciatica recovery in our frequently asked questions.
How can you tell if you have sciatica?
Approximately 90% of sciatica cases are caused by a herniated disc . This disc compresses the sciatic nerve, which runs from your hip to your lower leg. As a result, people with sciatica often have tingling, numbness, radiating pain, or other discomfort in the:
- Lower back
- Ankles and feet.
Pain normally starts in the hip, buttock, and thigh. As sciatica gets worse, it travels further down the leg. This is known as peripheralisation.
Most people with sciatica only experience discomfort on one side of the body. If you have sciatica on both sides, seek immediate medical advice, as this could indicate a more serious underlying problem.
Will my sciatica get better on its own?
In many cases, sciatica symptoms can improve on their own without medical help. Researchers have found that 60% of cases improved within three months with conservative pain management (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or placebo) . Approximately 50% of patients see improvement within just ten days.
If your sciatica symptoms return or don’t improve within a few months, you may be referred for steroid injections or even decompression surgery to relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve.
Research hasn’t found a long-term difference in the effectiveness of surgical versus non-surgical treatments . But if you’ve been struggling with sciatica symptoms for a long time, you’re more likely to be hypersensitive to the signs of sciatica improvement.
Find out more about what a hospital will do for sciatic pain.
7 signs your sciatica is improving
Sciatica can last several months, with up to 30% of patients treated with painkillers only continuing to experience symptoms after one to two years . So let’s find out how you can tell if your symptoms are finally improving with these seven signs.
1. Centralisation of sciatic pain
Sciatica starts in the hip region and radiates towards the lower legs as it gets worse. So the number one sign to look for in sciatica improvement is pain that starts to recede back towards the hip. This is known as centralisation.
Even if the pain is still relatively intense, if it starts to affect the lower leg less than it did previously, this is a great sign your sciatica is improving . The more you feel pain around your spine and hips rather than your legs, the greater the indication that your sciatica is getting better.
Centralisation can occur even if no action is taken to repair your herniated disc. So you don’t always need surgery, steroid injections, or other invasive treatments to eliminate sciatica pain. However, if your pain is severe or chronic, these treatments can speed up recovery.
2. Pain is less intense and frequent
Centralisation is important, but the ultimate goal is to be pain-free. So any reduction in pain frequency or intensity is a good sign. You may find it hurts less when you sneeze or cough, or that you experience tingling and pins and needles instead of shooting pains in your leg or hip.
However, a lack of pain reduction isn’t necessarily a sign that your sciatica is getting worse. You may still feel a similar level of pain in your hip, but if pain is centralising this is still an indication your sciatica is getting better.
3. Improved mobility
If sciatica pain is making it hard to walk or move, any improvement in mobility is an excellent sign. If you can do more activities than you could previously, it’s likely your sciatica is getting better.
Self-mobilisation and sciatica massage techniques have been shown to promote soft tissue healing and desensitise your sciatic nerve, which can also improve your symptoms . So taking an active role in your recovery is a good way to speed up healing.
4. Fewer muscle spasms
Muscular spasm is a known sciatica symptom. It can be problematic because muscle spasms can trap nerves, exacerbating the pain from sciatica . That’s why muscle relaxants and antispasmodic drugs are sometimes used to treat sciatic pain.
Feeling fewer muscle spasms in your back may indicate your sciatica is on the mend, and could make it less likely to recur.
5. Your muscles feel stronger
A trapped sciatic nerve can make the muscles in your legs feel much weaker than normal . While weakness is one of the more manageable symptoms of sciatica, monitoring muscle strength is a good way to determine if your sciatica is getting better.
Regaining strength in your legs is often a sign that sciatica is improving. You may find you can walk further than you could before, or stand up for longer.
6. Less pain in the straight leg raise test
The straight leg raise test is one of the most common diagnostic tests for suspected sciatica. In this test, you lie on your back, while a doctor gently raises your leg at the hip with your leg fully extended. Experiencing pain when your leg reaches a 30° angle may indicate sciatica, especially if pain worsens from 30° to 70°.
This test can be replicated at home with the help of a friend or partner. Use this test to monitor your pain levels and determine whether your sciatica symptoms are improving.
7. Diagnostic imaging tests show positive results
Diagnostic imaging isn’t always used for sciatica patients unless the doctor suspects a more serious underlying cause, or symptoms haven’t resolved themselves within a couple of months.
However, if you have had diagnostic imaging for sciatica, your doctor may offer further tests to get a better idea of how your condition is progressing. These tests may show promising signs of sciatica recovery.
Phases of sciatica recovery
Sciatica recovery can be grouped broadly into three phases:
- Centralisation — Pain can still be intense, but it gradually recedes back towards the hips and lower back.
- Desensitisation — Pain reduces gradually, though weakness and numbness are often still felt.
- Nerve rehabilitation — The sciatic nerve is no longer under pressure, allowing a greater range of movement so you can get back to normal activities.
However, many patients don’t see linear recovery from sciatica. Some days your symptoms may feel worse, even if you could do more the day before.
Try not to become disheartened. The vast majority of sciatica patients make a full recovery, especially with the support of dedicated pain management professionals. At Harley Street Specialist Hospital, we work with the UK’s largest pool of pain management consultants to help our patients access fast, world-class treatment for sciatica and other back and spine conditions.
Sciatica improvement FAQs
Now you know the signs of sciatica improving, you can feel confident about recognising when your body is starting to heal. But sciatica recovery isn’t always straightforward. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about sciatica improvements.
Does sciatica go away suddenly or gradually?
Most people find their sciatica symptoms disappear gradually. Even if you have steroid injections or surgery to alleviate symptoms, you’re likely to see a gradual improvement as the anaesthetic wears off and the steroids take effect. Learn more about how long sciatic lasts.
How long does it take for a sciatic nerve to feel better?
30% of sciatica patients may experience pain for a year or more . But while it can take several months to fully recover from sciatica, most people find their symptoms start to feel better much sooner than this. One study found 75% of sciatica patients reported improvements within a month using non-surgical treatments only .
Can you prevent sciatica pain from returning?
There are no guarantees that your sciatica won’t come back. But there are things you can do to minimise the risk of further sciatic pain, such as:
- Ensure good posture when lifting — Minimise the amount of weight you lift, and use the correct techniques .
- Reduce stress — High stress levels have been associated with increased risk of sciatica .
- Quit smoking — Smoking can increase the chances of developing new or recurrent sciatica .
Does sciatica get worse before it gets better?
In some cases, sciatic can get worse before it gets better. Pain is typically worse in the first few weeks of experiencing symptoms, but reduces substantially over the next few months .
What to do if sciatica isn’t improving
It can be frustrating if your sciatica symptoms aren’t improving, or you experience a sciatica setback. In these cases, it’s best to consult with a back and spine specialist who can help you find the best possible treatment for your condition.
At Harley Street Specialist Hospital, we offer sciatica treatments that aren’t readily available on the NHS, giving our patients rapid access to sciatica pain relief and recovery. Book an appointment to discuss your symptoms and find the right sciatica treatment for you.