a man being diagnosed with sciatica

Diagnosing Sciatica

The sciatic nerve is a branch of nerves located in the lower back. The spinal nerves, which are the nerves located along the back, connect to the sciatic nerve just above the buttocks. Those nerves branch away from the back and move through the hip, buttocks and legs. Sciatica is a set of symptoms that generally revolves around extreme pain in this area. Centralized pain in one portion of the body is common, but some patients experience pain that radiates down along the path of the nerves. It's also common for patients to suffer from pain on only one side of the body. If you think you have sciatica, you need to know more about the tests a doctor might administer before diagnosing you.

Physical Examination

During your first appointment, the doctor will often perform a physical examination that tests your ability to move in certain ways. Depending on the level of pain that you experience, the doctor may recommend additional test. Patients will usually lay on their backs during the exam and slowly raise their legs up and down. This simple action often causes pain in the sciatic nerve. The doctor may also ask the patient to walk back and forth across the room and do other simple tasks, including sitting down in a squat position or bending over.


General practitioners are usually the first doctors that patients see. They visit their normal doctors, talk about their symptoms and ask for advice. That doctor may suggest an X-ray after the physical examination. You'll wear a heavy vest or blanket that protects your body from radiation and lie down on a flat surface. The X-ray technician will then move the machine over your body and take internal pictures of your back and legs. Doctors use those images to look for compression along the spine, bone spurs, and other problems that can cause sciatic pain.


Magnetic resonance imaging, better known as an MRI, is another test that doctors use to diagnose sciatica. These machines use different types of waves to get a better look at each layer and section of your back. Doctors often use this machine on patients with symptoms of a herniated disc. You'll often lie flat on your back on a simple table, and the technician performing the test will move the table under the machine. After looking at the images, the doctor can determine if a slipped disc or another issue led to your sciatica.

Computerized Tomography Scan

A computerized tomography scan, also known as a CT scan, is a test often used by physical therapists and general doctors. If you visit an emergency room for your pain, the doctor on staff might suggest that you go through this test and X-rays. A technician will prepare a dye solution and give you an injection in the back. When you go through the scanning machine, the dye shows the doctor each nerve in your back and how each nerve looks. These tests can help the doctor determine the underlying cause of your sciatica and how to treat it.

Last Updated: November 21, 2016