Sciatica (sy-AT-ik-uh) is the medical term for pain that follows the path of the sciatic nerve in your lower back. The sciatic nerve branches from your lower back through your hips, buttocks, and down each leg. Typically, sciatica affects only one side of your body, although it can affect both.
Sciatica most commonly occurs when a herniated disc, bone spur, or narrowing of the spinal canal (stenosis) compresses the sciatic nerve, causing inflammation, numbness or tingling, and occasionally incontinence. Treatments include physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, steroid injections and, in advanced cases, surgery.
For many people, sciatica can be treated effectively and the symptoms resolve. But for others, compression of the sciatic nerve causes lumbar radiculopathy—weakness and loss of feeling in the legs. If your symptoms of lumbar radiculopathy limit your ability to walk and stand for long enough to work, you might qualify for disability benefits.
Lower back pain is the hallmark of sciatica. The pain can vary in intensity. You might feel a dull, constant ache, or a sharp, stabbing jolt. Additionally, you might have sciatica if you're experiencing any of the following:
Sciatica isn't actually a disease on its own—it's a symptom of other spinal conditions that can prevent you from working. If your medical record contains evidence of a disorder such as spondylolisthesis, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, or piriformis syndrome, the Social Security Administration (SSA) can find you disabled if your sciatica is severe enough.
If you meet the financial eligibility requirements for disability benefits and you've been unable to work full-time for at least one year, the SSA will want to see objective findings, like an MRI, of the underlying disorder causing the sciatica. If your sciatica is idiopathic—meaning that your doctors haven't been able to find what's causing it—you'll have a harder time getting the SSA to find you disabled.
Social Security will want to see that you've been getting regular medical treatment for your lower back pain or weakness in your legs. Visit your doctor as frequently as you can, and describe in specific terms the location and quality of your pain (for example, a dull throbbing in your legs, or a burning sensation in your hips).
With your permission, the SSA will obtain progress notes from your medical providers and review them to determine what limitations you have due to sciatica. The disability claims examiner reviewing your file will be looking to see:
Most importantly, the examiner will look for medical imaging that can pinpoint the source of your sciatica. Ideally, your medical record will contain one or more of the following objective findings:
If you don't have any of the above documentation, set up an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. If you are uninsured, underinsured, or otherwise can't access medical treatment, let Social Security know. The agency will sometimes pay for you to have an X-ray, but not more advanced imaging techniques.
Social Security maintains a list of impairments that can qualify applicants for disability benefits without having to determine that they can't work ("medically disabled"). If your medical record contains objective findings showing that you have spinal stenosis or nerve root compression, you might meet one of the agency's listings for musculoskeletal disorders.
Getting disability by meeting or equaling one of the listed impairments is difficult. You'll need to have the imaging showing evidence of nerve root compression, but you'll also need to show that you're exceptionally limited in the use of your extremities (legs, arms, or hands). People who meet the musculoskeletal listings typically need an assistive device, such as crutches or a walker.
If you have evidence of nerve root compression and think you might meet the requirements of one of the musculoskeletal listings, ask your doctor to provide a medical source statement explaining why you fit the listing criteria. The SSA values the opinions of doctors who can shed light on your restrictions. (Here you can download a free form for your doctor to complete).
Most applicants with sciatica don't meet the strict criteria for a finding of "medical disability." But the SSA can still find you disabled if you can show that your limitations prevent you from doing any full-time work. The process by which the SSA determines what you can and can't do in a work setting is called assessing your residual functional capacity (RFC).
What your RFC might say. If you have chronic sciatica, your RFC will include physical limitations on:
Your RFC nearly always mentions how long you can sit. Prolonged sitting (more than 1-2 hours) frequently intensifies sciatica symptoms. Because of this, your RFC might restrict how long you can sit for by stating that you need to shift between sitting and standing whenever you want, or that you need to walk around to relieve pain. Some sit-down jobs do allow this type of flexibility with movement, but many don't. (See our article on sedentary work limitations.)
How the SSA will use your RFC. Social Security will then look at your RFC to determine if your current restrictions eliminate your ability to do all the jobs you've done in the past. Depending on your age, education, and skills, you'll also likely have to show that you can't do the easiest, least physically demanding jobs. If you can't stand or walk for more than two hours per day total, and you also can't sit for six hours per day total, few (if any) jobs exist that you can do, and you'd likely be approved for disability benefits.
For more information, see our articles on how Social Security decides if you can work or are disabled.
Social Security is required to consider the effects of pain on a person's ability to work. If your record contains evidence of mental limitations—like difficulty focusing because of pain—your RFC will also contain "non-exertional" limitations, such as whether you can perform simple or complex tasks and how much contact you can have with other people.
Make sure that you let your doctor know about any limitations you're having because of your sciatica pain. The SSA will want to see evidence that your pain is intense enough to require medical attention.
Another way to let the SSA know the extent of your pain is by thoroughly completing your activities of daily living (ADL) questionnaire. Social Security wants to know about any struggles you have with basic chores—such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry—that aren't always documented in medical notes.
Be as specific as possible so the agency can get a vivid picture of the ways your sciatica limits you. When filling out the ADL questionnaire, avoid making vague statements like "I can't do anything" or "Everything hurts." Stick to numbers and quantities, like "I can walk for 15 minutes before I need to sit down." If you have difficulty concentrating because your mind is distracted by pain, you might tell the agency "I can't pay attention long enough to finish a TV show."
Here is more information on how Social Security evaluates chronic pain.
Getting awarded disability benefits due to sciatica can be challenging and time-consuming if you're doing it on your own. Consider contacting an experienced disability attorney (or a non-attorney representative) to help you with your application. Your attorney can help you with obtaining medical documents, getting favorable statements from your doctors, and advocating for you at a disability hearing.
Updated June 15, 2022