Sciatica describes the pain caused by irritation of the sciatic nerve. Sciatica causes shooting pain through the buttocks that frequently travels down one or both legs (but it generally affects only one). Sciatica is caused by problems elsewhere in the back such as herniated disks, spinal stenosis, piriformis syndrome, spondylolithesis, tumors, or trauma.
Most of the time, sciatica can be treated effectively and the symptoms abated. Rarely, however, sciatica can cause severe and permanent damage that leads to loss of movement and feeling in the affected leg and even bowel and urinary incontinence.
Treatment for sciatica includes physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, steroid injections, and surgery.
It's fairly rare that someone qualifies for disability benefits based on sciatica alone. The Social Security Administration (SSA) would have to conclude that your impairment prevents you from working full-time (and that you are eligible for either SSDI or SSI). To make this determination, the SSA will assess your capabilities to see if it feels you can still do your old job despite your sciatica. If the agency thinks you can, your claim will be denied. But if the SSA feels you cannot do your old job, the agency must next determine whether there is any other work you can do despite your sciatica, given your age, education, and skill set.
To assess your capabilities, the SSA will prepare a "residual functional capacity" assessment (RFC). An RFC is a detailed report that discusses what level of exertion you can do (heavy, medium, light, or sedentary) and how your sciatica affects your ability to do certain work-related activities, such as standing, walking, stooping, climbing, and sitting.
Only sedentary work doesn't require you to stand or work most of the day, so if your doctor has limited you to two hours or less of walking or standing per work day, you should get an for RFC sedentary work. If you don't have the education or skill set for a sedentary job, however, this limits the jobs you can do.
In addition, prolonged sitting frequently intensifies sciatica symptoms. If this is true in your case, your RFC might state that you are unable to sit for extended periods of time, or that your job must allow you to sit and stand as needed. This limitation may make it difficult to do some sedentary jobs unless the work allows an individual to get up and move around as needed. (See our article on sedentary work limitations.)
Another frequent symptom of sciatica is numbness and weakness in the affected leg. Numbness can affect your ability to climb, balance, and walk; accordingly, an RFC for someone with these symptoms may state that the individual can only perform these activities on a limited basis. An individual with this restriction would likely have difficulty performing construction work or other work that requires strength and coordination of the lower limbs (many labor jobs). There are jobs, however, that don't require climbing and balancing, or even much walking.
If the SSA determines that there is even one type of job that you can do despite your restrictions, it can deny your claim (as long sufficient numbers of that job exist nationally or locally). For more information, see our article on how the SSA decides which jobs you can do.
Sciatica can cause debilitating pain, and the SSA will consider the effects of chronic pain on a person’s ability to work. However, because pain is subjective and difficult to document with objective evidence, it is important that your medical records provide consistent descriptions of the pain and discuss the efforts you've made to treat your pain.
When considering a claim based in part on chronic pain, the SSA looks at the following factors:
For more information, see our article on how Social Security evaluates self-reports of pain.
You should provide the SSA with a detailed description of how your pain affects your daily life; you can use the SSA’s Activities of Daily Living (ADL) form to report this. Make sure to be as detailed as possible and describe any assistance you get from others (such as help with grocery shopping, driving, or housekeeping). For more information, see our article on the ADL questionnaire for Social Security.
In addition, you should ask your treating physician to prepare an RFC for you. The RFC from your doctor must be detailed and reflect his or her opinion about your ability to work due to your pain. The SSA is required to give a lot of weight to your doctor's opinion on what you can and cannot do. We have a free RFC form you can download and give to your doctor.