Sciatica is actually a symptom of an underlying disorder of the lumbar spine (commonly called the lower back). Typically, sufferers face mild to severe back pain originating in the lower back and radiating down through one or both legs (though typically only one leg is affected). Patients also may experience tingling or numbness because of sciatica. These symptoms occur when the disorder “pinches” the sciatic nerve, which is actually a set of nerve roots in the lumbar spine. The above-described pain or numbness results upon compression of the sciatic nerve.
Types of Sciatica
The two types of sciatica are acute and chronic. Acute sciatica typically lasts between one and two months and is treatable with over-the-counter pain relief, low-impact exercise such as yoga, and alternating hot and cold treatments. Although professional treatment is not necessary to cure acute sciatica, some patients choose chiropractic treatment to experience non-invasive, drug-free pain relief. Chronic sciatica lasts much longer and typically requires treatment.
Common Causes of Sciatica
Numerous disorders of the lower spine may cause sciatica. Medical professionals such as chiropractors emphasize proper diagnosis to ensure patients receive the appropriate treatment.
1. Degenerative Disc Disease
Even though discs naturally degenerate with age, this process may damage the sciatic nerve, causing sciatica. A diagnosis of degenerative disc disease indicates that the weakened disc is releasing inflammatory proteins, irritating the lumbar area’s nerve roots.
2. Isthmic Spondylolisthesis
Small stress fractures that lead to the slippage of one vertebral body over another can cause isthmic spondylolisthesis. When this happens, the nerve may become pinched. This may be naturally occurring at birth or during childhood development, or the result of trauma or spinal degeneration. This disorder typically affects the lumbar spine, often causing sciatic leg pain.
3. Lumbar Bulging or Herniated Disc
Sometimes referred to as a slipped disc, herniated discs occur when the disc’s soft inner core leaks (herniates) through its outer core. The most common symptom of a lumbar herniated disc is sciatic pain.
Occasionally, the disc’s nucleus pulposus (its soft inner core) does not actually leak but instead bulges. The result, however, is usually the same, as this bulging disc often compresses the nerve root. The main difference is that, when the nucleus pulposus actually leaks through, its acidic properties further irritate the nerves, causing even greater inflammation and pain.
4. Lumbar Spinal Stenosis
This is a nerve compression disorder typically found in older adults, which frequently leads to sciatic leg pain. This is because the spinal canal narrows naturally with age, leading to issues such as bulging discs, enlarged facet joints, and soft tissue overgrowth. This spinal canal narrowing presents a challenge because nerve roots branch through openings in the spinal column. Narrowed passageways lead to nerve compression and sciatic pain.
5. Piriformis Syndrome
This disorder gets its name from the piriformis muscle, which connects the lower spine to the thighbone, assisting with hip rotation. The sciatic nerve runs beneath this muscle; when it spasms, the nerve compresses. This is not true sciatica due to where it originates, although the leg pain feels the same. Additionally, diagnosing piriformis syndrome is difficult as neither x-ray nor MRI reveal its existence.
6. Sacroiliac Joint Dysfunction
This disorder does not cause true sciatica, only similar pain. When the sacroiliac joint, located in the lumbar spine, becomes irritated or damaged, it may also damage the L5 nerve, leading to pain that mimics the pain of sciatica.
7. Spinal Tumors
Though not common, spinal tumors in the lumbar area may cause sciatica. This may happen whether the tumor is benign or malignant, as nerve compression causes the pain, not the tumor itself.
External trauma to the lumbar area may cause sciatica. This trauma may originate in any number of ways, including sports injuries, motor vehicle accidents, or simple falls. Nerve roots may suffer injury during the impact itself or by broken bone fragments.
If you are experiencing sciatica-type pain, relief is possible. Your chiropractic doctor can diagnose the disorder causing your sciatica and prescribe proper treatment.