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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 July 21; 335(7611): 112.
PMCID: PMC1925227

An archaic term

Jeremy C T Fairbank, consultant orthopaedic surgeon

In their clinical review Koes et al use the entirely non-evidence-based term “sciatica.”1 From the Greek, it literally means hip pain. In English, the Oxford English Dictionary gives precedent to a quote from Shakespeare's Timon of Athens (act IV, scene I), where sciatica is a curse placed on the senators. None of this is a good basis for current usage, which is supposed to describe nerve root or radicular pain, as the authors note but do not discuss.

The problem is that patients with back pain may also have referred pain, a phenomenon first pointed out by Kellgren over 60 years ago.2 Clinicians are not good at making this distinction, but they should at least try. This issue takes on greater importance when studying the evidence base where often this distinction is not made. Persistent use of the archaic word sciatica in the clinical setting is not in the best interests of people with a miserable and disabling condition. It remains an effective curse, but English terms such as nerve root pain or radicular pain better describe the clinical problem.


Competing interests: None declared.


1. Koes BW, van Tulder MW, Peul WC. Diagnosis and treatment of sciatica. BMJ 2007;334:1313-7. (23 June.) [PMC free article] [PubMed]
2. Kellgren J. Sciatica. Lancet 1941;i:561-4.

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