Sciatica describes the pain caused by irritation of the sciatic nerve. It can cause shooting pain through the buttocks that frequently travels down one or both legs (but it generally affects only one). Sciatica is usually caused by problems in the back or spine, such as herniated disks, spinal stenosis, piriformis syndrome, bone spurs, spondylolithesis, tumors, or trauma.
Most of the time, sciatica can be treated effectively and the symptoms resolved. Less frequently, the sciatic nerve roots are compressed, causing weakness and loss of feeling in the affected leg, and even bowel and urinary incontinence. This is called "lumbar radiculopathy."
Treatment for sciatica includes physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, steroid injections, and, in severe cases like cauda equina syndrome (CES), 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 would first check to see if there are indications of nerve root compression or spinal stenosis (narrowing) in your medical records. If so, the agency would assess whether you meet the listing for either condition (for the details, see our articles on nerve root compression and stenosis).
If not, the SSA would 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 less demanding 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.
A frequent symptom of sciatica can be 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.
Only sedentary work doesn't require you to stand or walk for most of the day, so if your doctor has limited you to two hours or less of walking or standing per day, you should get an RFC for 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 would 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.)
An inability to stand or walk for more than two hours per workday in combination with an inability to sit for long periods means that there would be very few jobs you could do, which would make it more likely that you'd be approved for disability benefits.
If the SSA determines that there is even one type of job that you can do despite your restrictions, however, 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.
Consider asking 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. Statements by your doctor about what you can and cannot do can carry a lot of weight with the SSA, if they are backed up by evidence. We have a free RFC form you can download and give to your doctor for this purpose.
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 (officially, this is SSA-3373, Adult Function Report). 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.
Updated April 16, 2021