Sciatica: What the rheumatologist needs to know
Sciatica is a set of symptoms rather than a specific diagnosis, and is caused by a herniated lumbar disc in the vast majority of cases. The most important symptom is lower limb pain radiating below the knee and into the foot and toes. The clinical course of acute sciatica is generally favorable, with most pain and related disability improving within 2-4 weeks with or without treatment. Diagnosis mainly involves history taking and physical examination. Imaging is warranted if there is evidence of an underlying pathology other than disc herniation, such as infection or malignancy, and in patients with severe symptoms that do not improve after 6-8 weeks of conservative treatment. MRI is the preferred imaging modality, as it can visualize soft tissues better than CT and does not expose the patient to ionizing radiation. Conservative treatment is generally the first-line option in patients with sciatica; however, the currently available evidence does not show any intervention-including a broad range of conservative and surgical approaches-to have clearly superior outcomes. Thus, patient preference seems to be an important factor in the clinical management of sciatica.