Is Sciatica Stopping You In Your Tracks?
Aches and pains around the body are common, especially with age. However, a sharp pain that runs down one leg is something that should not be ignored. This pain may be sciatica, a severe symptom of an underlying spinal concern. Up to 40% of American adults will have some form of sciatica, which can affect movement, work, and social life. Sciatica can be painful, but several treatment options are available, including minimally invasive surgery.
What causes sciatica?
The sciatic nerve is the biggest and largest nerve in the body. The nerve starts at the base of the spinal cord and runs through the hips, buttocks, and leg. Should this nerve become pinched or irritated, the result is pain and discomfort. Therefore, sciatica is a symptom of the condition causing the pinched nerve. Sometimes, a disc in the spine can degenerate or shift out of place, pressing on the sciatic nerve. Spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the space where the sciatic nerve is located, is another factor. Sometimes, a weak or tight piriformis muscle can irritate the nerve. Other causes include injury, diabetes, and osteoarthritis.
Symptoms you can’t ignore
Sciatica symptoms vary from mild to chronic. Sometimes, the symptoms occur immediately after an injury. However, most cases are gradual, similar to conditions like arthritis and spinal stenosis. Most sciatica patients report nerve pain in the lower back that moves to the thigh, buttock, and lower leg. The pain also worsens with movement, standing, or sitting for long periods. Severe cases can lead to weakness in the leg, bowel dysfunction, and limited mobility. Sciatica is a warning sign of a deeper issue, so starting treatment is crucial to reduce pain.
Ease the pain
Sciatica generally responds well to non-surgical treatment. Pain management is the fastest way to get nerve pain under control. Using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) is a great way to relieve pain. NSAIDs come in both over-the-counter medicine and stronger prescription form. Doctors recommend NSAIDs along with hot and cold therapy. Alternating ice packs and heating pads can relieve pain, swelling, and inflammation.
Exercise as medicine
Low-impact exercises, stretching, and strengthening exercises can reduce pain. These exercises also strengthen the surrounding muscles to support the spine and sciatic nerve. Exercises like water aerobics, walking, and stationary bikes are all effective. In addition, gentle stretching twice daily can relax tight muscles, reducing pain. Sometimes, a doctor will recommend physical therapy. These are specific movements and techniques that target the back and lower body to relieve pain. Physical therapy and exercise can even help a patient avoid surgery.
Alternative treatment options
For moderate to severe pain, there are some more helpful treatments. Corticosteroids inject a powerful anesthetic and steroid into the epidural space. This shot can provide up to 3 months of relief. Steroid injections can also help doctors find the root cause of sciatica. Regenerative medicine is another helpful option that’s growing in popularity. For instance, doctors can use platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy near the sacroiliac joint to relieve sciatica.
Is it time to consider minimally invasive surgery?
If exercise, pain medication, and alternative treatment fail, or in severe cases, a doctor will likely suggest surgery. The surgical procedure depends on the reason for sciatica. For instance, a discectomy can remove part or all of a damaged disc affecting the sciatic nerve. A laminectomy can also help spinal stenosis by removing part or all the laminae. In most cases, the surgeon can use minimally invasive surgery (MIS). The surgeon can access and treat the spine using a series of small incisions and a special scope. MIS benefits patients with less scarring, less pain, fewer infections, and faster recovery.
Sciatica can first feel uncomfortable, then distressing if left unchecked. The pain is a symptom of a deeper issue related to the intervertebral discs or bones in the spine. Regardless of the source of the pain, sciatica can benefit from several non-surgical options. If these fail, however, minimally invasive surgery can help. Some patients can get outpatient minimally invasive surgery and experience a smooth recovery within a few weeks. A spinal surgeon will help provide the best course of action to keep sciatica at bay.