Pinched Sciatic Nerve vs. Hamstring Pull

I still haven’t started training for my marathon, and I’m now a week and a half behind schedule and the clock is ticking. My problem is that I’m experiencing quite a bit of pain in my left leg, but I’m not sure if it’s a pulled or strained hamstring muscle, or a pinched or irritated sciatic nerve. I’ve been doing the research online and talking with a physical therapist and evidently the two are commonly confused and with me that makes three.

Your hamstring, of course, is the big muscle on the back of your leg (actually there is more than one hamstring muscle, but let’s not get technical). It lifts your leg up when you take a step. I believe I strained mine by doing some unexpected sprinting, which means I was hastily moving my leg forward and upwards and overworked the hamstring muscle beyond what it was used to.

The sciatic nerve runs from your spine down through your behind, your hamstring, past your knee, into your calf, and then your foot. It’s a big nerve, about as big around as your finger, apparently.

Sometimes your sciatic nerve can become irritated if you have disc problems in your back, and apparently if you overwork your hamstring, since the nerve goes through it. Although I’m not sure, I believe I injured my hamstring which led to irritation of my sciatic nerve. But there are a few reasons why I’m confused.

First, supposedly you can detect a sciatic nerve injury by laying on your back and having someone else lift your leg up straight until you feel the stretch, and then they bend your toe towards you. This is supposed to cause excruciating pain if you have a sciatic nerve injury. But my wife did this with me last night and it didn’t hurt at all. Not one bit. In fact, my leg felt quite a bit better after this.

So is it a hamstring injury? Well, hamstring injuries aren’t supposed to cause pain anywhere but from your behind down into the back of your leg, but I’m having pain on the outside of my knee, in my calf, and even going towards my foot.

These are just some of my symptoms. In reading through all the symptoms of hamstring injuries and sciatic nerve injuries it seems I have some symptoms of each, but I appear to not have some of the most basic symptoms of each.

So what am I doing for treatment? Nothing, mostly. That is, I’m sitting around and resting, sitting on a heat pad, and trying not to do anything that makes my leg hurt. But I seem to keep hurting it anyway. I haven’t been swimming for a few months, but my parents have a membership at the gym and we’re visiting them for Christmas so I decided to go with them, since I’m going crazy not being able to do anything and figured swimming should be safe. How wrong I was. Even though I only kick as much as I need to in order to keep my legs from dragging in the water, that was enough to aggravate my leg pain to the point where yesterday ended up being my worst day so far. The night before I had jogged 50 feet or so and felt ok, and was thus planning on going for a run later in the day, but after swimming I tried to run and on the first step I felt like I was tearing something and had to immediately stop, after which point it was difficult to even walk without pain.

The pain is only triggered by movement. It doesn’t ache or anything, it’s a sharp, shooting pain that’s triggered when I move in certain ways, which includes most ways I can move. There are few movements I can make that don’t hurt, and I haven’t memorized them yet, so I’m commonly in pain if I’m moving at all.

I’m hoping that within a day or two I’ll have recovered enough from swimming that I can go for a short jog, which doesn’t appear to aggravate the injury. I’m hoping that the blood flow from that will aid the healing that that I’ll soon be able to get fully involved in my training. But if this goes on for a few more weeks, I’m thinking I’ll probably need to cancel my plans to run in this marathon and hope for a later one.

I’m going to try the tennis ball massage technique today. That is, sitting on a tennis ball and rolling around on it to give myself a deep tissue massage.

  • sue

    I’m having the same problem. I injured my hamstring a year ago, stopped running for a few weeks and then went back and have had pain ever since. I developed the sciatica (pain going into my foot) about 4 months ago. I run in pain because I don’t want to quit. I run slow, much slower than I did before I had this and have to stop frequently. But, it’s the sciatic pain into my foot that’s the worst. I should stop running for a few weeks again and see if some healing will take place, but I don’t like other types of exercise, so it’s hard for me to stop. Lucky I don’t like swimming or I could be worse.

  • Joshua

    I’m not a physical therapist nor do I play one on TV, but one thing I know is that you’re not supposed to run through pain. That is, sore muscles are one thing, but real pain–nerve pain or injury pain–is quite another, and the more you cause that pain the more damage you may be doing. I would find a physical therapist in your area who is an avid runner and make an appointment immediately. Better to take two months off of running in order to do therapy and let things heal than to keep on running and end up with a more serious problem that may require surgery and six months of no running.

  • Mark

    This sounds eerily like my injury, although mine is in my adductor magnus on the inside of my thigh. It started from pushing too hard on my bike without proper warmup and training years ago. It has come and gone since then but this time is debilitating. The problem is that the pain doesn’t come for a couple days so I can do real damage to it without realizing it but I have learned to recognize the sensation and immediately stop. My mistake was going to a physiotherapist who made me do exercises .. very bad idea. Then I couldn’t even limp along without hurting it. Then I couldn’t even use crutches anymore because I couldn’t hold my leg up. I was totally incapacitated, after having pulled it 11 times. Interestingly, anywhere from a week to 2 weeks after pulling it the pain would completely go away and I’d feel great and happy. Then I’d use my leg in a non strenuous way and I’d feel it go, and I’d be right back to square one, but a little weaker every time as the muscle degenerates from lack of use. I guess it takes the nerve much longer to regain its strength than the muscle, so it is more susceptible to reinjury if you return to activity too quickly. Unfortunately, this means that your muscle will waste away. Interestingly, I did manage to get up to normal walking abilities a couple months ago and went kayaking. I was actually carrying 100 pounds on my back, and that didn’t bother it. What reinjured it was when I was waiting for the bus and I did a very light short jog over to the washroom. Since then it has been a downhill spiral. At the beginning of April I had to move into my mom’s house, leave work, and do nothing. I was getting better then I made the mistake of seeing the sports doctor. Ouch… Then 2 weeks later I saw another sports doctor closer to where my mom lives …. ouch. A month has now passed and I am regaining some strength and it doesn’t hurt anytime I move it. I still can’t walk or put weight on my foot due to lack of use. Next week I am seeing an EMG doctor in the hospital but I am going to try to talk him out of doing one due to my improvement over the last few weeks from resting it. But my foot has gone purple, cold, swollen, and developed a rash.

    With me I think it is the tibial nerve, which is a branch of the sciatic which goes along the lower adductor magnus.

  • Karen

    I had a similar thing. I am training for a half marathon and all of a sudden had pain when I was driving. The pain would be in my butt so bad I couldn’t drive. I kept running and then it was painful to run. I went to the accupuncturist and she told me I have a inflamed sciatic nerve. I have had 3 accupuncture treatments and I am almost pain free. The doctor said I will need 6 treatments and take 2 weeks off of running. So far it is working.

  • Joel

    Similar problems for me. Turned out to be a herniated disk in the lumbar spine compressing the sciatica as it leaves the spine. I had to go through four doctors before they thought to check for a herniated disc. Lying down on stomach and then pushing oneself up with one’s arms, bending at the waist, so that the hips stay in contact with the surface one is lying on should help this condition. When I do this ten or twenty times every two hours, the pain goes away.

  • Maureen

    I believe I have both conditions. I reached a point where I could not get out of bed without excruciating pain and I called 911. The pain in the back of my leg was so bad that it did not respond to morphine and the drug that is even stronger than morphine. They transported me to an MRI center and the MRI came back with a herniated disc. They did not take an MRI of the hamstring area. Since they could see the pinched nerve, there was no need to look elsewhere. Everyone is now talking back surgery. I am currently bedridden since walking 10 steps gives me extreme pain and I want a fix. But I would hate to go through back surgery and have it not fix the problem since the pain caused by the herniated disc was secondary pain. I believe I have a hamstring pull that caused swelling that then caused the sciatica. Stretching my thigh kills.

  • Chass

    Hi, I noticed you posted this a while back, how did you get on in the end?

    I had a similar problem with my sciatic nerve and recently once my physio sorted it out giving me specific leg movements to perform every day(where you perform 20-30 repetitions and feel a pull in your hamstring), I started running again. Only recently I decided to progress to sprinting (which was probably too early just yet as I had previously got onto 20 minute running)where the nerve became irritated and now it has been a few weeks even though I am still performing the leg movements effectively and my nerves are fully functional i.e. I can touch my toes with the palms of my hand and can straighten my leg and bend the foot without feeling pain. Resting, Ice, Heat, Massage, Nerve exercises and stretching have all failed.

    My physio couldn’t solve the problem, do you have any advice?

    Cheers in advance.

  • Joshua

    The tough part with this problem is proper diagnosis. I’m still not positive what my problem was, and I don’t know what fixed it. I stayed away from what seemed to have done the most damage initially (quick movements that jerked my hamstrings, long distances of fast walking, trampolines), and running seemed to make it feel better. I got back into the gym, which also seemed to help as I did more core exercises and strengthened my abdominal muscles. But maybe it was just a fluke and it would have gotten better anyway. I just don’t know.

  • Bill

    I have been having a similar experience since June and finally went to a Sports Medicine doc yesterday. My pain was first noticed when running. It was under the left buttock and somewhat down the underside of my thigh. Hurt every time I lifted the left leg while running. Sometimes it bothered me when just walking. Along with it came a general feeling of weakness in that leg.

    Mild stretching seemed to help it, but one night I decided to add a piriformis stretch to my regimen and, oh boy, I saw the stars for several days.

    I thought this was a disc problem in my back. But the doc says I have strained my hamstring at its insertion point and the swelling is putting pressure on the sciatic nerve. He recommends rest, physical therapy and gentle and progressive stretching. He feels like this will get me back in the game in a matter of a month or so.

    Believe it or not, just knowing that has made it hurt less! I guess the doc visit relieved some anxiety which was probably contributing to the problem. My advice to you: go see a competent Sports Medicine Orthopedic. Don’t waste any more time trying to diagnose it yourself.

  • heather

    im having the same problem its like almost my but and somtimes my hip aera i do gymnastics so what do i do to make it better because i cant stop training???????!!!!! PLEASE HELP ME

  • Mike in pain

    This all sounds so familiar. I have what I believe is a saiatica because of the fact the pain goes down my entire leg n my lower back is a little sore. I’ve now been in this pain for 10 days and yes it’s getting less painful it still completely sucks. Sometimes it feels like the back of my knee is going to explode sometimes it’s my calf. Now I’m going thru what feels like a pulled or tore hamstring. I can badly walk n wish I wasn’t alive at times. Oh best part was the dr gave me 3 days of muscle relaxers. No pain killers at all. I am a avid weight lifter and not used to long injuries. Life completly sucks in this much pain. I’ve slept less then 10 hours since this has happened. Pls go away pain. I have a life to get back to.

  • Bill

    Mike-In-Pain: Many years ago I had similar symptoms and it turned out that I herniated a disk in my lower spine doing heavy squats followed by Roman chair situps (very stupid, but I know better now). The docs messed with traction and muscle relaxers for about 6 months until the disk finally blew out so bad I couldn’t walk. Went to a different doc and he removed half of the disk (called a laminectomy).

    I’ve been pain free from that injury for many years now and have been lifting regularly. Don’t despair; injuries happen. You need to get over to a GOOD Sporta Medicine Orthopaedic who can diagnose the problem and let you know what you’re up against. The sooner you go get that done, the sooner you’ll be on the road to healing. Don’t waste time or money on a chiro-quacker. Don’t let some buddy tell you some exercise you can do to “work it out.” Nope. Go see a good dock and get it fixed right so you can get back to lifting and enjoying life.

  • http://www.beyond-pt.com physical therapy los angeles

    Joshua is right! You’re never supposed to run through the pain…it’s your body telling you there’s something wrong!


  • bill

    Glad I discovered that I’m not unique. My hamstring/sciatic (not sure yet, putting off going to the doctor) is fine in the morning but depending of the length of time on my feet is when I begin to feel the discomfort. It is in both of my hamstrings and on my right side my leg starts to feel like pins and needles and then my legs become numb to the point where I need to sit down. I know of past sciatic problems I have had, but not to this extent. Any feedback is welcome. mummers58@gmail.com Thanks

  • Maureen

    Well, I had my surgery on September 20 and went from being bedridden on high doses on indomethacyn to being pain free upon waking up from the surgery. The only pain was from the incision. Had surgery on a Monday, went home on a Tuesday, took regular tylenol for 3 days and haven’t had a need for any pain medicine since. I can now walk, drive, work, sit etc. Don’t think I could do anything athletic yet but as I feel better every day, I should be there shortly. Finding the right surgeon seems to be the answer and getting away from the quack doctor who told me to do nothing and wait for it to go away on its own.

    Hope everyone else on this board has luck as good as mine.

  • Bill

    from Bill to bill: If you’re getting pins and needles along with numbness in your leg you very likely have an injury that is putting compression on the sciatic nerve. This most often stems from a ruptured lumbar disc. Do not delay going to a GOOD orthopedic doctor as unrelenting pressure on the nerve can result in permanent nerve damage. The surgery nowadays is much simpler than in the past and can have you pain-free in short order. Don’t toy around with this injury; it will not “pop back in” and will not heal itself.

    from Bill to Maureen: Glad you’re doing so well, but don’t be so hard on the “quack doctor.” A good doctor will assess the injury and if it does not seem to be severe enough to warrant immediate surgery they will first try conservative treatment which involves bed rest, anti-inflamatories and sometimes traction. If those remedies don’t do the trick you can then opt for surgery. But remember, surgery is not without risk and if you can heal on your own without it that is the best course. However, that being said, we are sometimes quite impatient as a people in wanting to minimize the “down-time” and get back to living a full life. Waiting for a long-term healing process to take place is a pain to many of us.

  • Jimbo99

    Last Thursday I had the whole pinched nerve from a lower back incident. Classic sciatica symptoms. Pain in the left buttock, weak leg, pain in the left thigh. A combination of tingles and numbness, the latter of which was in the three biggest toes of the left foot. What relieved it, steady doses of ibuprofen, heat and ice applications, change of sleeping style. The change of sleeping style, I am normally a side sleeper, I started to sleep on my back & stomach. Pain is gone from lower back to the thighs, tingles are gone and numbness has returned to full sensory response. However, there is also another interrupt in nerve damage. There’s the sensation that has returned, but then there’s also movement. I am slowly massaging the toes to regain the strength and full range of motion the right toes have. Also my left ankle is tighter than the right, so I’m massaging that too. My own self treatment here based upon reading on line, self diagnose and self healing seem to be working. As I recover from this, the bottom of my foot is actually itching, so I take that as a good sign that I am slowly returning to full use of my back, buttocks, legs and feet. Finally I can sit in a chair for longer periods of time without experiencing the pinched nerve pain. I haven’t felt this good in years. I guess in my situation it had to accumulate until it escalated to this major incident, it relieved itself. I intend to keep up this regime of self administered physical therapy as it is working.

  • gus

    i have been playing soccer for past 10 years and about a year ago i had a hamstring injury. i rested for a week and kept playing sometimes i felt pain on my hamstring and sometimes i did not. it wasn’t until 4 months ago i started feeling more pain on my hamstring and could barely walk after each game. my leg felt really weak and felt pain in middle of hamstring as i took every step. when i seat on the floor and bring my right leg up i cant stretch all the way because i feel a lot of pain. i can move my knee up and down with no pain but as i take leg toward my chest leg feels tight and painful to stretch. for past two month i have been feeling dull pain on my hamstring when driving after 5 min inside the car. In this position i also feel sharp spasms which start from behind buttock and ends at the calf. feels worst when i have my wallet on. but only happen when i am in the car. i have gone to diff massage therapists and each gives me a diff opinion about my injury. i have spent a lot of money for massages and stretch everyday but i don’t see any improvement although i have rested for two months without playing soccer or any other type of sport activity.
    Please help i am desperate and this is affecting me in my everyday activities now. hope i have explain my problem clearly.

  • Cindy

    Last summer I incurred a partial hamstring avulsion in a water skiing accident. (one of the three hamstring muscles pulled away from the ischael tuberosity (sit bone) Waited 6 weeks to see Dr.who said it was a strain and sent me to physical therapy(bad idea). Severe sciatic pain after pt appts. Continued to re-injure just doing little everyday things until my pain was so severe I had to sit sideways and could not drive for more than 15-20 mins. without being in severe pain. After 4 more doctors, I found an ortho surgeon at OSU that knew what was wrong. Just underwent a surgery 4 weeks ago to release 4″ of sciatic nerve entrapped with scar tissue. Now I have a pocket of fluid build up that is keeping me in sciatic pain but am hopeful once this absorbs that I will be on the mend. Not sure if this much scar tissue could have been relieved without surgery or not. I’m thinking not since physical therapy made it worse.

  • Tom

    Hi all, i think i pulled my hamstring just over a year ago playing football. and when i began physio i started to get crazy pins and needles and all the sciatica symptoms (pain in calf, foot and weakness in back of leg) I too think the swelling from my hamstring may have caused my sciatic pain. i was then reffered to an orthopeadic and recently i had an mri scan which showed a buldging disc. i have had an epidural injection to treat the pain which got rid of the pain for the first couple of weeks then my symptoms returned gradually. i have just seen a spine surgeon who thinks surgery is necessary on my spine, (a microdiscectomy) which will take pressure off the nerve. I too, am worried that as i have had no hamstring mri that if i have my operation in 3 weeks i will still be in pain. i have been bed bound for months and am taking a lot of painkillers just to get me through the day. I am only 21. anyone got any advice?

  • Tom

    Hi all, i think i pulled my hamstring just over a year ago playing football. and when i began physio i started to get crazy pins and needles and all the sciatica symptoms (pain in calf, foot and weakness in back of leg) I too think the swelling from my hamstring may have caused my sciatic pain. i was then reffered to an orthopeadic and recently i had an mri scan which showed a buldging disc. i have had an epidural injection to treat the pain which got rid of the pain for the first couple of weeks then my symptoms returned gradually. i have just seen a spine surgeon who thinks surgery is necessary on my spine, (a microdiscectomy) which will take pressure off the nerve. I too, am worried that as i have had no hamstring mri that if i have my operation in 3 weeks i will still be in pain. i have been bed bound for months and am taking a lot of painkillers just to get me through the day. I am only 21. anyone got any advice? .

  • Bill

    Tom, I ruptured a disc in my back back in March 1972 doing heavy squats followed by Roman Chair situps (very dumb). My sciatic nerve gradually began to hurt more and more until I was limping whenever I walked. The pain was constant and almost like a toothache.

    My Dad took me to an orthopedic doctor in June who diagnosed it as a compressed disc. They didn’t have MRI’s back then, but he didn’t need one to see what the problem was. He prescribed a nerve block, which was just a shot of Novacaine into the affected area. That did absolutely nothing. Next, he put me in the hospital for 3 weeks of traction, where they had a harness that went around my hips with a weight on a pulley attached to the harness. I laid in bed in the hospital and eventually the pain subsided somewhat. (Can you imagine today’s hospitals and insurance companies allowing you to spend 3 weeks taking up bed?)

    The muscle around my sciatic nerve was still very much in spasm so the doc took me to the operating room, knocked me out and proceeded to stretch my leg in every conceivable direction. I woke up and felt much better and could walk without limping. There was still some pain and the doc told me to get a pile of magazines and each day try to remove another magazine from the stack while bending over with my knees locked. The best I could do was to reach my knees.

    I returned to campus and proceeded to try to enjoy a normal life. But running around, playing ball and doing fraternity pranks eventually caused the disc to blow out again. But this time it was so severe I was nearly paralyzed with pain.

    My fraternity brothers took me to the infirmary where they took one look at me and referred me to an Orthopaedic Clinic. The doc there had me bend over and he took his hand, karate-chop fashion, and hit me firmly in the lower back. Hurt like the dickens. He said, “son, you’ve got a ruptured disc in your back and if I were you I would have it operated on.” I told him I was ready whenever he was. That was Friday, September 29, 1972. On October 3rd I had the surgery. I woke up and it felt like someone had a knee in my back. Ten days in the hospital and I had gone from a muscular 195 lbs in March to 158 lbs of bones and skin now. I went back to see the doc twice after that and in late November he told me he wanted me to start some light jogging and stretching. I did as he instructed and on Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 1972 I touched my toes for the first time since March.

    I am now 59 years old and still lift weights, run, and still play baseball in the Men’s Senior Baseball League. I am always aware of my back and take great care to work its muscles but I also protect its bones and discs from stupid movements. Life is good.

    The reason I go into all of this for you is this: sometimes you can try the conservative treatments and they will work. Sometimes ruptured discs can resolve themselves and you can return to full activities without a problem. But sometimes they won’t. The conservative path is always the best path to try first. Once you have back surgery your back is never quite the same. I have to diligently keep the gut off and absolutely cannot sleep on my stomach or else my spine will start acting up. But in my case the pain had become so unbearable that it was time to ratchet the treatment up to the next level.

    If you’re at the end of your rope and the pain is debilitating, consider having the surgery. If you can avoid it and heal up naturally, that will take significantly longer, but the end result will likely be better. Surgery is simply a means of attempting to fast-track the healing process that the body will undertake itself. You need to decide if you are at the end of your rope. Can you wait two years for the body to heal itself, while being basically unable to participate in the physical activities that you enjoy?

    Take the example of a professional baseball pitcher who is facing shoulder problems. If he simply waits it out, the body will eventually heal itself and he will be alright. But while he is waiting, his career is ending. So he opts for the surgical route to get him back in the game quickly.

    Best of luck. It is a hard decision for some, and an easier decision for others. The pain and frustration of inactivity and the prospect of an even longer wait may well lead you to “git ‘er done.”

  • Tom

    Hi Bill, thanks for the detailed reply!

    I had a phonecall off my surgeons secretary today saying they can fit me in for surgery next tuesday, and if i dont have it then there is a possibility of a long wait. (i am being treated by the NHS as im from england) My pain got to the debilitating stage quite a while ago. I ly in bed most of the day and time drags like hell. i was relying on my next epidural just to keep me going but the surgeon said any more than 1 makes it harder to operate. i have decided to go with the surgery as i feel as though i could be losing some of the best years of my life if i carried on without the operation and waited for it to heal on its own, with the possibility of re-injuring it again if it ever did heal. I’m very nervous as im being submitted into hospital on monday, with the operation the following day. I just pray to god it works! the surgeon tells me it wont get rid of much back pain but mainly the leg pain, which im willing to accept as most of my pain is in my left leg. my grandfather had this operation 20 years ago and my mom suffers with back pain too so im guessing its heredatory. quick question, how long was your recovery after surgery? my football team birmingham city that i have supported all my life, have got to there first major cup final since 1956. i have tickets for the game in a couple of weeks. im guessing thats COMPLETELY out of the question for me to go?

    Im glad to hear you recovered well. its always nice to hear a happy ending

    thanks again for your reply. its great to speak to someone whos been in a similar position to me. everyone i talk to with pain problems too or back pain i end up talking about different pain killers and all sorts forever…lol

  • Bill

    Tom, how did things work out? Have you had the surgery yet?

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    check out Priformis nerve.

  • http://myironmandiet dolores

    I have had this injury for 6 months. I lifted to heavy on the leg extension and hip abductor machines. Seemed like hamsring and sciatic, but felt deeper. When I do the Piriformis exercises I can walk with out pain.

  • paola

    I have been having the same problem, I have always run long distance, but I stopped for almost the whole summer, when i got back to my routine i wanted to push myself and get back my endurance, i ignored the pain in my leg and continued my routine. i am 21 years old female. the pain started @ august and i stopped, the pain went from my lower back through my hamstring, i stopped running for almost 2 months already but i felt the pain had gone away and waited an extra week for it to properly heal, yesterday i went to the gym and only did the bike to not put stress on my leg, now today i feel the pain in my lower back is running again through my butt and hamstring. i have not yet been to the doctor.

  • Tom

    Hi Bill, very sorry about the late reply.Thanks ever so much for asking. I had the surgery mid feb, the BEST thing i ever did in my whole entire life. can not believe how life changing it was, i went from being bed bound and barely being able to walk for 6 months to being on my feet 2 days after my operation. each day i would build up my walking, they reduced my pain meds, pain went COMPLETELY. I have a small scar at the bottom of my back, but that is all. Loving life again, back at work! New girlfriend, things could not be better.

    Paola, i feel for you, i have been there. Be careful what exercises your physio makes you do. Push for the mri scan as you will not know the exact problem until then, add me on facebook if you want to talk about it or need any advice whatsoever as i have the greatest sympathy for anyone that has back problems or leg pain. i was at rock bottom, and i am happy to help. search Thomas Moloney in. i hope you get well soon.

  • Nick

    Hi Cindy, I think I have a similar injury that has been dragging on for years. Who was the Dr you saw, and where? Did your pocket of fluid (seroma or hematoma) resolve? Did all your symptoms resolve?