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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

Diagnosis

Your doctor will review your symptoms and your medical history. He or she will want to know if you have low back pain that spreads to the leg and if you have muscle weakness in your leg or foot. Your doctor will also ask questions that might suggest a serious condition, such as a bone fracture or infection. He or she will want to know if you've had:

  • any injury

  • fever

  • problems controlling your bowels or bladder,

  • a history of cancer

  • recent weight loss.

Your doctor will examine you, paying special attention to your spine and legs. To look for problems in your spinal column and related nerves, your doctor may ask you to perform a series of tests that will check your muscle strength, reflexes and flexibility.

The diagnosis is based primarily on your symptoms. The physical examination is important to look for weakness and loss of sensation in the leg. The exam might indicate another explanation for the symptoms. However, a normal physical examination is common in people with sciatica. While testing may be important in some cases, the diagnosis can be made even when all test results are normal.

Your doctor may send you for X-rays, a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. These tests check for problems in the spinal vertebrae (backbones) that may be irritating or compressing your sciatic nerve. These tests are most helpful to rule out other causes of symptoms or if surgical options might be considered.

Page 3 of 9     Next Page:  Sciatica Expected Duration
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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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