Sciatica is term used to describe pain that travels (radiates) down the leg from the lower back or buttock. It is a type of nerve pain and a number of cases are caused by pressure on the nerves due to disc bulge in the low back. This is most commonly seen in middle-aged adults and men are more susceptible. The term sciatica originated from the sciatic nerve, which is the single largest nerve in our body. This nerve is responsible for a significant proportion of leg sensation and movement. Sciatica represents pain in the area supplied by the sciatic nerve.
Radicular pain/ radiculopathy are medical terms which doctors use when describing this condition. There are numerous reasons for having leg pain and every leg pain is not sciatica. Commonly people misinterpret sciatica as a disease and need to be explained that it is a symptom of the underlying problem.
The severity and symptoms many vary considerably. In severe cases the affected individual may find it difficult to walk or even stand up straight.
Some of the commonly observed symptoms include
Fortunately most cases of sciatica resolve within a period of weeks to months with conservative treatment. Specialist input and treatment can help. Painkillers, heat or cold pack, altered activity levels and physical therapy may be suggested depending on your condition. An injection of steroids into the epidural space within the spine can provide short-term pain relief in sciatica. Persistent pain can lead to changes in the nerves (referred to as plasticity). This can be a source of persistent pain even if the original inciting event is resolved … hence the importance of managing these sooner than later.
Having seen numerous cases over the years, I would say that it is not easy to predict the course. It can resolve but to what extend depends on numerous factors- some are modifiable and others are not. The recovery period varies from individual to individual.
Some symptoms point towards a serious problem and require urgent medical attention. Ignoring these could lead to permanent nerve damage. Some of these include
Though it’s not possible to completely eliminate the risk of sciatica, however adopting a healthy life style can help in reducing the risk. This includes
Your doctor may request for investigations such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan and blood tests. Sometimes computerized tomography (CT) scans may also be required. X-rays are not as helpful and they can provide only limited information.
Bulging discs on an MRI scan are not an uncommon finding. It is important not to get fixated on the MRI findings. A bulging disc is not permanent and can reverse. The investigation results should be interpreted in combination with patient history, examination findings to assess their significance. A number of patients with severe MRI findings may be asymptomatic and vice versa.
Sciatica is different from common ailments we all suffer and hence taking professional help is recommended. Your doctor can help to confirm that you have sciatica and help identify the cause. A range of different options- non surgical (such as injections- nerve root blocks, epidurals, piriformis injection etc) or surgical may be considered. There is no one solution for sciatica pain and the options are numerous – some with good evidence and others with not so robust evidence.
Generally a multimodal multidisciplinary approach is preferred as this helps in addressing not only the pain but also the impact of pain on one’s life. I ensure that the patient understands the nature or problem and the do’s and don’ts. Time spent in explaining the conditions and the expected course goes a long way in fostering realistic expectations. I generally use a combination of the modalities mentioned below to enhance the chances of quicker recovery.
Pain reduction achieved by medicines help to maintain activity and improves physiotherapy compliance. The medications used depend on the type and severity of pain, duration of symptoms and individual factors such as co morbidities and allergies. Some of the commonly prescribed pain killers include
The use of epidural steroids/ Nerve root blocks has been shown to have beneficial improvements in leg pain and disability scores in short term. Steroids help by their anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain relieving) effect. Epidural steroids are preferred to oral steroids as they are given close to site of actual problem and have less adverse effects.
Physiotherapy is an essential component of sciatica treatment. Your physiotherapist can help with posture advice, do’s and don’ts relevant to your condition, understanding the concept of pacing of activities, setting practical goals, teaching strengthening exercises for core, leg muscles and manual handling techniques.
If a combination of above fails to provide adequate relief then surgical options such as discectomy (operation to remove bulging part of the disc or separated disc fragments) and microdiscectomy can be considered for sciatica resulting from disc bulge. Surgical options will vary depending on the cause of sciatica and sometimes may be the first choice, depending on the actual pathology and its severity.