Is My Foot Pain Caused By Sciatica Or Plantar Fasciitis?

Foot pain is a common ailment affecting people from all walks of life, leading to discomfort and a decrease in quality of life. Among the myriad causes of foot pain, sciatica and plantar fasciitis stand out due to their prevalence and the distinctive pain they cause. While these conditions may share the symptom of foot pain, their origins, treatment, and management strategies differ significantly. This blog post by Manly Cove Podiatry aims to shed light on both sciatica and plantar fasciitis, offering insights into how to distinguish between the two, understand their symptoms, and navigate towards the most appropriate treatment options. 

Understanding Sciatica

Sciatica refers to pain that radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve, which branches from your lower back through your hips and buttocks and down each leg. Typically, sciatica affects only one side of your body. Key symptoms include:

  • Lower back pain
  • Pain in the leg or buttock that is worse when sitting
  • Hip pain
  • Burning or tingling down the leg
  • Weakness, numbness, or difficulty moving the leg or foot
  • Constant pain on one side of the rear
  • A sharp pain that may make it difficult to stand up or walk

How Sciatica Causes Foot Pain

The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in your body, and its extensive pathway means that inflammation or pinching of the nerve can lead to pain that extends to the foot. This pain is often described as a sharp, shooting, or sometimes burning sensation.

Common Triggers and Risk Factors for Sciatica

  • Herniated disk or bone spur on the spine compressing part of the nerve
  • Aging-related changes in the spine, such as spinal stenosis
  • Obesity, which increases stress on your spine
  • Occupations that require you to twist your back, carry heavy loads, or drive a motor vehicle for long periods
  • Prolonged sitting or a sedentary lifestyle
  • Diabetes, which can affect the way your body uses blood sugar and increase the risk of nerve damage

Understanding Plantar Fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis is an inflammation of the plantar fascia, a thick band of tissue that runs across the bottom of your foot and connects your heel bone to your toes. It’s one of the most common causes of heel pain. Symptoms include:

  • Sharp pain in the bottom of your foot near the heel
  • Pain that is usually worse in the morning when taking the first steps
  • Pain that increases after standing or sitting for long periods
  • Pain after exercise, not during it

How Plantar Fasciitis Leads to Foot Pain

The plantar fascia acts as a shock-absorbing bowstring, supporting the arch in your foot. If tension and stress on this bowstring become too great, small tears can arise in the fascia. Repeated stretching and tearing can cause the fascia to become irritated or inflamed, leading to pain.

Common Triggers and Risk Factors for Plantar Fasciitis

  • Age, most common between the ages of 40 and 60
  • Certain types of exercise that place a lot of stress on your heel and attached tissue, such as long-distance running, ballet dancing, and aerobic dance
  • Foot mechanics, including flat feet, a high arch, or even an abnormal pattern of walking
  • Obesity, which puts extra stress on your plantar fascia
  • Occupations that keep you on your feet, such as factory workers, teachers, and healthcare professionals

Comparing Sciatica and Plantar Fasciitis

Understanding the key differences between sciatica and plantar fasciitis is crucial for identifying the source of foot pain and seeking the right treatment.

Key Differences Between Sciatica and Plantar Fasciitis

  • Origin of Pain: Sciatica is nerve pain from the irritation of the sciatic nerve, whereas plantar fasciitis is due to inflammation of the plantar fascia.
  • Location of Pain: Sciatica pain can extend from the lower back to the foot, while plantar fasciitis pain is primarily located in the heel and bottom of the foot.
  • Nature of Pain: Sciatica often causes a sharp, shooting pain along the nerve’s pathway, while plantar fasciitis results in a sharp, stabbing pain, particularly felt during the first steps in the morning or after rest.

Pain Characteristics: Sciatica vs. Plantar Fasciitis


  • May include numbness, weakness, or tingling down the leg.
  • Pain can vary from a mild ache to a sharp, burning sensation or excruciating discomfort.

Plantar Fasciitis:

  • Pain typically concentrates in the heel.
  • The pain may develop gradually and usually affects just one foot, though it can occur in both feet simultaneously.

Location and Nature of Pain: A Comparative Analysis

The pain from sciatica is more likely to affect the lower back, buttocks, legs, and feet, and can vary significantly in intensity and sensation. It may be exacerbated by sitting for long periods or during movements that stretch the sciatic nerve.

Plantar fasciitis pain is most intense with the first steps after waking up or after long periods of being stationary. It can also flare up after prolonged activity but tends to ease with mild to moderate levels of movement.


Diagnosing the Cause of Your Foot Pain

Understanding the root cause of foot pain is essential for effective treatment. Both sciatica and plantar fasciitis require a thorough diagnosis, often involving a combination of clinical evaluation and diagnostic tests.

Professional Diagnosis: Steps and Procedures

For Sciatica:

  • Physical Examination: A doctor will check your muscle strength and reflexes. You might be asked to walk on your toes or heels, rise from a squatting position, and, while lying on your back, lift your legs one at a time. Pain that results from sciatica will usually worsen during these activities.
  • Imaging Tests: MRI, CT scans, and X-rays can be used to identify the cause of the sciatica, such as a herniated disk or a bone spur.

For Plantar Fasciitis:

  • Physical Examination: The doctor will check for tenderness in your foot and the exact location of the pain. This helps to make sure that the pain is not caused by another foot problem.
  • Imaging Tests: An X-ray or an MRI is not typically needed to diagnose plantar fasciitis, but it can help rule out other causes of heel pain, such as fractures or pinched nerves.

Importance of Accurate Diagnosis: Sciatica vs. Plantar Fasciitis

An accurate diagnosis is crucial for effective treatment. Misdiagnosing plantar fasciitis as sciatica or vice versa can lead to ineffective treatment strategies, prolonging pain and possibly leading to further complications.

Home Assessment Tips: Identifying Possible Signs

For Sciatica:

  • Notice if your foot pain extends from your lower back or buttocks, down the back of your thigh, and into your leg.
  • Be aware of sensations like numbness, tingling, or weakness in your leg or foot.

For Plantar Fasciitis:

  • Pay attention to pain in your heel or the bottom of your foot, especially when taking the first steps in the morning.
  • Consider whether the pain decreases after a few minutes of walking.

Treatment Options for Sciatica

Effective treatment for sciatica varies depending on the underlying cause of the symptoms and might range from conservative approaches to surgery in severe cases.

Conservative Treatments for Sciatica-Induced Foot Pain

  • Pain Medication: Over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers can help manage pain.
  • Physical Therapy: A physical therapist can design a rehabilitation program to help you strengthen the muscles supporting your back and improve your flexibility.
  • Hot or Cold Packs: Applying heat or cold to the affected area can provide immediate pain relief.

Physical Therapy and Exercises for Sciatica Relief

Exercises focusing on strengthening the back, abdominal muscles, and leg muscles can help protect your spine. Stretching exercises for the back and leg can also alleviate sciatic pain.

When to Consider Surgery for Sciatica

Surgery might be an option if conservative treatments do not relieve your symptoms, if you’re experiencing severe pain, or if you have significant weakness in your leg. The most common procedures include discectomy or microdiscectomy to remove the part of the disc that is pressing on the sciatic nerve.

Treatment Options for Plantar Fasciitis

Managing plantar fasciitis typically involves non-invasive treatments, though more severe cases might require advanced interventions.

Conservative Treatments for Plantar Fasciitis-Induced Foot Pain

  • Stretching Exercises: Stretching the plantar fascia and Achilles tendon and strengthening lower leg muscles can help stabilise your ankle and heel.
  • Orthotics: Custom-fitted arch supports can distribute pressure to your feet more evenly.
  • Night Splints: Wearing a splint at night can stretch your calf and the arch of your foot, holding the plantar fascia and Achilles tendon in a lengthened position overnight.

Physical Therapy and Exercises for Plantar Fasciitis Relief

A physical therapist may instruct you on exercises to stretch the plantar fascia and Achilles tendons and to strengthen lower leg muscles, which stabilises your ankle and heel.

Advanced Treatments and When Surgery Is Needed

In cases where plantar fasciitis pain does not improve after 12 months of conservative treatments, options such as extracorporeal shock wave therapy or even surgery to detach the plantar fascia from the heel bone may be considered.

Preventing Foot Pain from Sciatica and Plantar Fasciitis

Preventative measures can significantly reduce the risk of developing both sciatica and plantar fasciitis, ensuring foot health and functionality. Here are strategies to help avoid these conditions:

Lifestyle Modifications to Prevent Sciatica and Plantar Fasciitis

  • Maintain a healthy weight to reduce pressure on your feet and lower back.
  • Practice good posture when sitting and standing to avoid unnecessary strain on your back and feet.
  • Incorporate regular, low-impact exercise into your routine to strengthen muscles and improve flexibility, reducing the risk of injuries that could lead to sciatica or plantar fasciitis.

Importance of Footwear in Preventing Foot Pain

  • Choose shoes with proper support, cushioning, and a comfortable fit to minimise stress on your feet and lower back.
  • Avoid high heels and shoes with inadequate support, especially if you spend a lot of time standing or walking.
  • Consider using orthotic inserts or custom-designed footwear for additional support if you have existing foot abnormalities.

Regular Exercises and Stretching: Best Practices

For Sciatica Prevention:

  • Engage in exercises that strengthen your core and back muscles, helping to support your spine.
  • Regularly perform stretches for your lower back, hamstrings, and hip flexors to maintain flexibility and reduce pressure on your sciatic nerve.

For Plantar Fasciitis Prevention:

  • Daily stretches for your plantar fascia, Achilles tendon, and calf muscles can help prevent tightness and maintain flexibility.
  • Strengthening exercises for the muscles of your feet and lower legs can also provide better support and reduce strain on your plantar fascia.


Understanding and distinguishing between sciatica and plantar fasciitis is essential for effective foot pain management. Both conditions, while causing discomfort and affecting daily life, have unique causes and symptoms, necessitating specific diagnosis and treatment strategies. Early intervention often leads to successful management through conservative treatments, yet advanced therapies may be required for persistent cases. It’s crucial to adopt preventative measures and seek professional advice from a healthcare provider like a podiatrist at the first sign of foot pain to avoid exacerbation and ensure a swift return to health.