Causes of Sciatica Flare-Up; And How to Avoid

If you live with chronic pain, you know about pain flare-ups.  But why do we get them?  Is there anything we can do about them?  Read more to find out about causes of sciatica flare-ups, and how to avoid them.

Also, this article should address other types of pain, not just sciatica.  I have pain caused from spinal stenosis, but my symptoms are very much like sciatica.  My pain is what motivates me to research information that I can use to manage it.  It is my hope that you find some help from my research.

Causes of Sciatica Flare-Up

What is Sciatica Pain?

First of all, if you have ever had sciatica pain, you know what it is!  It is very painful and can be debilitating.  

Sciatica pain is caused by something pressing on the sciatic nerve, which originates in the spine and runs down the leg.  The offending issue may be herniated disc, or a piece of bone spur.  This presses on the nerve and causes pain.

Whatever the cause, the pain starts in the spine and can travel down the leg.  This results in pain in the buttock, back of the upper leg and calf.  Usually this is in only one side of the body.  

So now we know what sciatica pain is.  Why then, is it sometimes worse?

What is A Flare-Up?

When a pain condition gets worse, it can be referred to as a flare-up.  A flare-up is defined as a period where the pain intensifies.  In other words, you feel more pain than you usually feel.  Just what we need right?  We are already in pain, and now it’s worse!  

As the pain is more intense, our medication or whatever we are doing to manage the pain isn’t as effective.  Or maybe our treatment is not effective at all!  This also results in what is called the “Noisy Neighbor” symptom.  This is where the pain can radiate to areas that usually aren’t affected.  And last but not least, it usually takes more time to recover from a flare-up.  

What is the normal state of affairs for you?  It is worthwhile noting how your “normal” pain is throughout the day.  Are you in the most pain in the morning or evening?  How does exercise affect your pain?  Can you stand without pain?  Or sit?  How long can you engage in an activity before your pain gets to you?

All those factors should be noted.  I think it is worthwhile to keep a record of your pain so that you can begin to see patterns.  For instance, my pain gets more intense (i.e., from a 2 to a 5) as the day goes on.  I also need to change my positions every ½ hour.  When I work on  my blog, I set a timer to alert me to stop and move for a bit.

I made a rough chart for you to use to get you started. Click here to open it in Google Docs. You should be able to edit it if you want to make changes.

Also, through my research, I found that there are apps to track your pain. I haven’t used any of them yet, so I can’t comment how effective they are. I will do some research in the future. But this blog shows you some of your options, so I suggest you check it out.

Causes of Sciatica Flare-Up

What Causes Flare-Ups?

Probably the number one cause of pain flare-ups is over activity, or “over doing”.  Think about it.  Ask yourself, what was I doing the day before (or five hours before, or an hour before) my flare-up?  Chances are you did more than usual.  Chances are also good that you have a good reason for overdoing too.

Another cause can be not enough activity.  For example, lying in bed all day, or planted in front of the television can cause flare-ups.  This seems counter intuitive, but it is a factor in your feeling worse.  Therefore, we can safely conclude that not enough movement can affect our pain just as much as too much.

A further word about not moving enough.  I know from my own pain journey that it is very tempting to want to stay in bed and not face the day when you know you will have pain.  Trust me, as soon as I get out of bed and take a step, I am in pain.  But then I am also in pain in certain positions in bed as well.

So why bother to get out of bed?  Two factors help me to get up and get moving.  One factor is that I know that movement increases circulation.  And increased circulation to all my tissue means healthier body parts and therefore reduction in pain.

The other factor is if I stay in bed, I am focusing mostly on my pain, or other problems, and this can lead to anxiety and depression, both of which have a negative impact on my well being.  In fact there appears to be a link between depression and pain; a certain vicious cycle.  Personally, I’d rather force myself to move in hopes of addressing the anxiety and getting blood to my tissues.  

What Can You Do When You Have Them?

You most likely have a go to program for managing your pain.  Most of my articles on this site recommend any number of remedies.  Just know that with flare-ups, most of what you have been doing may not work as well.  That includes any medication you use to manage your pain.  

Usually with a flare-up, we are forced to cut back on activities we normally do.  In this case, it is recommended you still try to move as much as you can stand.  And have all the tools that you usually use on hand.  

Some of my tools are:

  • Ice packs
  • Heat packs
  • TENS
  • Hand held massager
  • Stretches

What are your tools?  Leave a comment about what you do in the section below.  You will be helping other pain sufferers.

Here’s a delightful physical therapist with some more suggestions in this video.

What Can You Do To Avoid Them?  

So what can we do to avoid flare-ups?  Never has the word BALANCE been more applicable!  From the worksheet I encouraged you to start, you may begin to see patterns and other practices affecting your pain. These patterns should show you what preceded your flare-up.

Now is the time to learn to take control of your day so that you can avoid flare-ups.

Three keys to helping in your adjustments are going to be delegating, adapting and pacing.  What does that look like?

Delegating of course means asking for help.  I hope you have family members that you can ask to help you.  I heard of a woman that always made dinner for herself and her husband.  But it caused her to have flare-ups.  As they discussed it, he gladly volunteered to cook.  Low and behold, he found he loved to do it!  And she has less flare-ups!

Don’t be afraid to ask; they can say no.  Or you can hopefully negotiate some new practice.  Right now, my house is very dusty.  I just haven’t felt well enough to tackle it.  But I will.  Of course I will not try to do it all at once.  Because I already know that if I do, it will lead to a flare-up.  

Adapting isn’t so much you changing to improve things, but to change your environment to improve things.  An example would be having a cushion to sit on wherever you go, if you have buttock pain.  That’s how I live my life now.  And by the way, I change them out periodically to find the best results.  What can you do to improve your outcome?

Pacing is a management tool where you adjust your activities.  These could mean hourly, or daily or weekly.  It means spacing out your activities throughout the day so you don’t overextend your bodies capabilities. I wrote an article about it called Pacing and Chronic Pain.  Read it here.  My example of working at my desk for ½ hour is one way that I practice pacing.  

Causes of Sciatica Flare-Up


I hope this article has been helpful and you are thinking about how you can adjust your life to avoid sciatica flare-ups.  Sure, this isn’t the life we thought we would have, but at least I think we can take back some control by learning new habits.

I would love it if you would comment about some techniques you have implemented.  Your ideas might help someone else who has chronic pain, and that’s what this website is about; helping each other.  


I am not a medical professional.  Should you have any concerns about trying a new practice to manage your pain, or when starting something new, please contact your health care professional and discuss it with them.  I had some great professionals working with me to help me take back my life.  I hope you have the same.

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