How long does a sciatica flare last?

Sciatica is a condition characterized by pain that radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve, which branches from your lower back through your hips and buttocks and down each leg. An episode of sciatica can vary greatly in how long it lasts.

Quick answers

– For most people, sciatica pain goes away within 6 weeks with self-care treatment.
– Minor sciatica flare-ups may last just a few days. More severe flare-ups can last for weeks or even months.
– On average, acute sciatica lasts for 4-8 weeks. Subacute sciatica can continue for up to 12 weeks. Chronic sciatica lasts for 12 weeks or longer.
– Sciatica often improves over time without surgery. But for some people it can be chronic and require long-term management.
– Staying active, applying heat or ice packs, gentle stretches, OTC pain medication, and physical therapy exercises can help relieve sciatica faster.

What is sciatica?

Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve is compressed or irritated, causing pain to radiate down the path of the nerve. The most common cause is a herniated or slipped disk in the lower spine pressing on the nerve roots. Other causes include:

– Spinal stenosis – Narrowing of the spinal canal that compresses nerves. More common in older adults.

– Spondylolisthesis – A spine joint slipping out of position.

– Piriformis syndrome – Tightness or spasm of the piriformis muscle pressing on the sciatic nerve.

– Injury – A muscle strain, car accident, fracture, or other trauma affecting the lower back or hips.

– Spinal tumors – Noncancerous or cancerous growths affecting spinal nerves.

Sciatic nerve anatomy

The sciatic nerve originates in the lower back from the L4-S3 nerve roots. It runs through the buttocks and down the back of each leg, branching into smaller nerves along the way. When one of these nerve roots gets compressed, it can radiate pain along the sciatic nerve pathway.

Typical duration of a flare up

The duration of a sciatica flare up can range significantly depending on the severity and underlying cause:

– Mild flare-ups may only cause intermittent tingling or discomfort in the leg or buttocks region for a few days.

– Moderate flare-ups with numbness and more intense pain may last 1-2 weeks.

– Severe flare-ups with shooting or burning pain can persist for 6 weeks or longer.

Acute vs. chronic sciatica

– Acute sciatica is a new onset episode lasting for 4-8 weeks. This is the most common time frame.

– Subacute sciatica continues for up to 12 weeks.

– Chronic sciatica is pain persisting for 12 weeks or longer. About 20% of people have pain for a year or longer.

Average duration

Research looking at the typical duration of sciatica flare ups has found:

– In one study of 129 patients, the average duration of a sciatica episode was 43 days.

– Another study found the median duration before resolution of symptoms was 69 days.

– For patients with severe sciatica requiring surgery, symptoms lasted a median duration of 121 days before their operation.

So on average, an episode of acute sciatica tends to last between 4-12 weeks for most people. But each individual’s experience can vary.

What impacts the duration of sciatica?

Several factors play a role in how long you may experience a flare up of sciatic nerve pain:


The underlying reason causing the sciatic nerve irritation often correlates with symptom duration:

– A herniated disc – Usually causes acute sciatica lasting 4-8 weeks.

– Spinal stenosis – Tends to result in more chronic sciatica.

– Piriformis syndrome – Typically leads to acute flare-ups lasting 2-3 weeks.

– An injury – Resolves within several weeks once the injured tissue heals.

– Spinal tumor – Persistent sciatica until tumor removal.


More severe sciatica is likely to have a longer-lasting flare up. Lightning bolt or burning types of pain that limit your mobility may take 6 weeks or longer to improve.


Sciatica lasts longer on average for older adults over age 60. Age-related changes to the spine mean healing takes longer.

Overall health

People with diabetes, autoimmune disorders, or other conditions that slow healing are more prone to chronic sciatica. Good health promotes faster recovery.


Effective early treatment speeds healing of irritated nerve roots. Delaying therapy allows inflammation and nerve dysfunction to persist.

Does sciatica ever go away permanently?

For many people, sciatica completely resolves after one episode. But in some cases, it can become recurrent and chronic requiring ongoing management.

Research looking at long-term outcomes has found:

– Up to 70% of people with acute sciatica fully recover within 6 weeks.

– Around 60% are symptom free at 12 months after onset.

– Of those with chronic sciatica, approximately 30% continue experiencing intermittent symptoms after one year.

– Surgery for sciatica, such as microdiscectomy, has about a 90% success rate for resolving leg pain. But occasionally pain can recur if another disc herniates.

So for the majority of people, sciatica flare ups are temporary and eventually go away. But a significant portion have recurrent episodes or chronic symptoms requiring long-term treatment. Seeing a doctor is important if pain persists beyond 6-12 weeks.

Treatments to reduce duration of sciatica flare ups

There are many conservative treatments to help speed healing of sciatic nerve irritation and the duration of symptoms:


Take a break from activities that aggravate your sciatica pain for a couple days. But avoid prolonged bed rest which can weaken muscles.

Ice or heat

Applying ice packs or a heating pad to the painful area for 15-20 minutes can help relieve irritation of the sciatic nerve.


Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen or naproxen can ease inflammation pressing on the nerve.

Stretching and exercise

Gentle stretches for your back, hamstrings and hips, along with walking and core exercises, reduces tension on the sciatic nerve. Physical therapy usually includes specialized exercise routines.


Massaging the piriformis muscle and lower back may relax spasms affecting the sciatic nerve.

Posture tips

Avoid sitting for long periods and wear comfortable supportive shoes to take pressure off the lower back.


Spinal manipulation by a chiropractor can help relieve pressure on the compressed nerve roots.

Epidural injections

Corticosteroid medication injected into the epidural space around the spinal nerves decreases inflammation.

Seeking prompt medical treatment is key to reducing the duration and severity of a sciatica flare.

When to see a doctor

You should make an appointment with your doctor if:

– Pain lasts more than 1-2 weeks without improvement

– You have muscle weakness in your leg or foot

– You experience numbness, tingling, or burning down your leg

– Pain worsens when coughing, sneezing, or going to the bathroom

– You have a history of cancer, diabetes, or autoimmune disease

– You have a fever, leg swelling, or incontinence with sciatica pain

– Home remedies and over-the-counter medications don’t relieve your symptoms

Risk factors for chronic sciatica

Certain factors raise your risk of developing long-lasting sciatic nerve pain:

– Being older than 60 years old

– Previous episode of sciatica

– Severe initial leg pain

– Smoking

– Obesity

– Diabetes

– Manual labor occupation

– Spinal stenosis or spondylolisthesis

– Delayed treatment with medications or therapy

Modifying risk factors such as losing weight, quitting smoking, and regularly exercising can lower chances of chronic sciatica.

Complications from prolonged sciatica

While most cases of sciatica are not dangerous, ongoing compression or irritation of the nerve can lead to:

– Chronic pain syndrome – Severe leg pain continues long after initial injury should have healed.

– Muscle weakness – Inability to move the ankle or foot normally from disuse. Foot drop may occur.

– Altered gait and balance – Leg or foot weakness causes limping, swaying, or difficulty walking.

– Tingling or numbness – Nerve damage leads to changes in sensation down the leg.

– Bladder or bowel incontinence – The cauda equina nerves to the pelvic floor get compressed.

– Spinal deformity – Unsupported muscles from nerve compression leads to scoliosis.

– Neuropathy – Permanent nerve damage.

Seeking medical care can help identify complications and prevent long term disability.

When to consider surgery

Surgery may be an option for sciatica if the following occur:

– Symptoms last 4-6 months or longer

– Significant leg weakness

– Difficulty with urination or bowel control

– Pain worsens despite multiple nonsurgical treatments

– Large herniated disc or severe spinal stenosis confirmed by imaging

Discectomy and laminectomy procedures aim to relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve by removing a portion of the herniated disc or enlarging the spinal canal.

Surgery for sciatica has risks including infection, nerve damage, and requirement for additional procedures. Success rates are very good for resolving leg pain, but low back pain can continue.


In summary, the duration of a sciatica flare up varies substantially between individuals based on the severity of their symptoms and underlying cause. While many mild cases resolve within 1-2 weeks with conservative treatment, more severe sciatica can last 6 weeks or longer. On average, an acute episode lasts about 4-8 weeks. But some people go on to develop chronic sciatica lasting for 12 weeks or more, especially with predisposing risk factors. Seeking appropriate medical treatment is important for addressing nerve irritation before it leads to serious complications or disability. With proper care, most people find their sciatica pain eventually resolves.

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