In the United States alone, approximately 10% of adults suffer from sciatica. The majority of those affected are between the ages of 25 and 45, though there have been cases reported in children as young as two years old. Sciatica pain can be so severe that it limits movement, makes it difficult to go to work, and makes it difficult to enjoy even the simplest daily activities. In severe enough cases, it can be enough to put sufferers on disability. Here at AICA Tucker, we want to answer three key questions: what is sciatica, how bad can it possibly get, and can it be cured?
What Is Sciatica?
Sciatica is a condition characterized by pain radiating from the sciatic nerve—a large nerve that extends from your lower spine and runs down your leg—down through the lower half of your body. Typically, it only affects one side of the body, but cases involving both sides have also been reported. The pain can occur anywhere along the length of the sciatic nerve, but it’s most likely to occur along a line that runs from your lower back to your buttocks, as well as down the back of your thigh and calf.
Pain can range from dull discomfort to a sharp, burning sensation, all the way up to paralyzing agony. It can feel like a jolt or an electric shock at times, but the burning presentation, in particular, has become almost synonymous with sciatica. Coughing or sneezing can make it worse, and sitting for lengthy periods of time might also exacerbate symptoms. Numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness in the affected leg or foot are also common and can range from mildly annoying to a complete loss of leg function.
Beyond the pain itself becoming so unbearable that it can leave a patient bedridden, sciatica has the potential to cause permanent complications if not treated as soon as possible. This itself can also be a problem, as many people with sciatica view it as a temporary condition that they just need to wait out rather than something that can affect their entire lives permanently. Other complications outside of the immediate pain can include permanent nerve damage, increased sensitivity to pain in general, and the development of cauda equina syndrome.
Cauda equina syndrome is a condition in which the collection of nerves at the end of the spinal cord experiences some form of dysfunction, generally in the form of extreme compression or damage. One of the major hallmarks of this disorder is incontinence, both in the bowels and bladder. If you think you may have cauda equina syndrome, treat it as an emergency situation and seek treatment immediately.
Sciatica rarely occurs unprompted. Typically, if you’re suffering from sciatica, there is another dysfunction somewhere in your body that is causing a disruption in the sciatic nerve. These causes can include:
- Herniated discs. A herniated disc occurs when the gelatinous center of one of the discs in your spine leaks out into the surrounding tissues. Though this usually doesn’t cause pain in the disc itself, the gel is an irritant and can inflame the sciatic nerve should they come in contact. In more severe cases, the disc can deflate entirely, causing the vertebrae to shift and pinch the nerve.
- Bone spurs. These are errant growths of bone, typically occurring around damaged or irritated joints in the body. They often go hand-in-hand with herniated discs as a result and can put excess pressure on the nerves around them.
- Injuries. Sciatica is very common after traumatic injuries to the lower spine, such as those from car accidents or sports.
- Degenerative disc disease. Though this can occur as a result of a herniated disc, degenerative disc disease tends to occur on its own due to age. Due to wear and tear, the discs will eventually become shorter and flatten out, much like a well-loved pillow. This can lead to the spine slipping out of alignment or the nerve passageways becoming narrowed in a condition known as spinal stenosis.
- Piriformis syndrome. This rare condition occurs when the piriformis muscle, a tiny muscle deep in the buttocks, tightens or spasms. This can irritate and press on the sciatic nerve.
- Tumors. Whether benign or cancerous, tumors on the lower spine can compress the sciatic nerve.
This array of potential causes only adds more credence to the notion of visiting a professional ASAP, as any one of these conditions could quickly spiral and cause a severe interruption in your quality of life.
How to Cure Sciatica
Fortunately, sciatica can be cured. In mild cases, sciatica may be cured at home using self-care methods like a cold compress or gentle stretching. However, if these methods don’t work, you may need medical intervention. Medications apart from painkillers can include anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, antidepressants, and even anti-seizure medicines. Physical therapy has also been shown to be highly effective. This generally involves activities to improve your flexibility, correct your posture, and strengthen the muscles that support your back. In the most severe cases, such as those that have progressed into cauda equina syndrome, surgery may be the best or even only option.
Chiropractic care has also been noted as an effective way to treat some cases of sciatica. Sciatica can be treated with a variety of methods by chiropractors, and all of them are non-invasive. Because each patient’s sciatica experience is unique, the chiropractor will speak with them to learn about their daily routine in order to pinpoint sciatic pain sources and triggers. Then, in order to provide the most effective treatment, a treatment plan will be established to approach the problem from the patient’s perspective. Here at AICA Tucker, we make sure to take this personalized approach to back pain during all chiropractic and orthopedic consultations in order to build a precise treatment plan that will get you back on your feet.