If you experience pain originating in the lower back or buttocks that radiates downward into one or both legs, you may have sciatica. The intensity and frequency of this nerve pain varies. Patient complaints run the gamut from sharp to dull pain and tingling to numbness, and they may suffer these symptoms constantly, intermittently, or only occasionally. Often, the pain patients feel in their legs is worse than what they experience in the lower back.
Common Causes of Sciatica
Compression of the sciatic nerve causes sciatica. This compression occurs in a number of ways, the most common of which is a herniated disk. The damaged disk, also known as a bulging or slipped disk, bulges and pinches the sciatic nerve. Other common causes include misaligned vertebra (lumbar spine subluxations), tumors, pregnancy, diabetes, and sitting incorrectly. Patients may also suffer from issues with the piriformis muscle, located above the sciatic nerve. If this muscle is injured, the sciatic nerve becomes pinched. Sciatica symptoms typically clear in six weeks or so, although pain may last much longer.
The First Step: Proper Diagnosis
With so many possible causes, properly diagnosing what caused the patient’s sciatica is important. Understanding what caused your sciatica is how the chiropractor knows which treatment is most efficacious for your unique case. Your chiropractic doctor reviews your medical history and performs both physical and neurological examinations. Next, he or she runs a series of diagnostic tests, which may include x-rays, CT scan, MRI, or electrodiagnostic tests such as nerve conduction velocity.
Chiropractic Treatments for Sciatica
According to an article in Prevention, a study of 120 patients receiving spinal manipulation to treat their sciatica experienced relief equal to that experienced by those who sought surgical treatment. The study’s researchers believe spinal manipulation not only relieves pain, it also restores mobility and reduces inflammation to promote “the body’s natural healing mechanisms.” All these benefits were attained through chiropractic’s non-invasive, drug-free treatments.
Doctors prescribe treatment based on what caused the patient’s sciatica, and each prescription may involve a variety of treatments. Spinal adjustments, also called spinal manipulation, form the core of chiropractic care. In treating sciatica, these adjustments help restore vertebra alignment, reducing nerve irritability. The result is a reduction in inflammation, pain, and other sciatica symptoms.
Beyond spinal manipulation, chiropractors may prescribe ice or cold therapy, which controls pain by reducing inflammation. Heat therapy through ultrasound improves circulation to reduce symptoms such as cramping, muscle spasms, and pain. The transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) uses electrical currents to stimulate muscles, reducing pain and muscle spasms.
When Chiropractic Treatment Is not Enough
As effective as chiropractic treatment is when treating sciatica, some causes of sciatic pain fall outside chiropractic care’s scope. In these cases, the chiropractor refers the patient to a specialist, although the chiropractic doctor may co-manage the patient’s care with appropriate chiropractic treatment. Possible treatments include acupuncture, massage, epidural steroid injections, yoga, or surgery. He or she may also prescribe pain relievers or muscle relaxants, as well as herbal anti-inflammatory medications such as devil’s claw.