Sciatica Pain Relief Part 2: Common Causes of Sciatica

In part 1 of our Sciatica Pain Relief series, we covered the basics of sciatica, sciatic nerve pain, and the general anatomy involved. While this may not interest everyone, it is useful in understanding the sharp, burning, and often debilitating pain that radiates down the leg that some people experience with low back pain. Our goal in this series is to inform, empower action, and give our fellow Salt Lake City, Utah friends the information and tools to help yourself through this condition as well as the understanding of when to seek care and a trusted source to do so if needed. In part 2, we are going to briefly discuss some of the most common causes of sciatica but before going forward, check out part 1 by clicking the button below.


TOP 5 COMMON CAUSES OF SCIATICA

1) Disc Buldge - Intervertebral Disc Compression

Credit: Allan Ropper, M.D., Ross Zafonte, D.O. Sciatica Review Article. New England Journal of Medicine

Credit: Allan Ropper, M.D., Ross Zafonte, D.O. Sciatica Review Article. New England Journal of Medicine

Starting with the most common cause makes sense as this is what most literature supports and what most people fear when they have some incident or trauma that leaves them with sciatic nerve pain shooting down their leg. A disc bulge is just that, an outpouching, or bulge, of the disc (compressive and supportive tissue between each vertebrae that acts as a shock absorber and allows for movement of the spine) which then presses up against the spinal cord or a nerve as it exits the spinal column. Compression here can be mild to severe, bringing with it anything from pain, numbness, and tingling, to complete weakness of the muscles and limb supplied by the nerve being compressed.

Note: If you are experiencing the latter of those, please seek help immediately as progressive weakness is a red flag and often requires immediate imaging and intervention.

Now, the debate is out on this as disc, and other lumbar spine pathologies are considered somewhat normal. Chances are, before the injury or event that left you feeling this way, the disc bulge was ALREADY PRESENT! This event just aggravated it enough to cause pain.

For Review: Check out the chart in this article we did on spinal imagining and what the best, most current research supports. You will find that most people are walking around with ‘back issues’ with absolutely no pain or quality of life disruption.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT SCIATICA & DISC ISSUES

  1. You are not your image. Chances are, your MRI will show things that were already present and may not be the primary source of your sciatic nerve pain.

  2. A true disc injury and resulting sciatica take time to heal. The body will do most of the work. Chiropractors and therapists are here to help with symptoms, function, and assuring you are in the best position to heal. There is NO magic pill for this, TIME heals.

  3. If you are experiencing sudden weakness or progressive numbness that does not let up, seek care immediately as intervention is most likely needed to assure permanent damage is not experienced.



2) Lumbar Spine Stenosis - Canal & IVF Narrowing

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Similar to a disc bulge, Sciatica related to Spinal Stenosis is a physical compression of the nerve roots that make up the sciatic nerve. However, this is more of a slow growing, progressive problem. In most cases, these do not wake up in severe pain overnight, these patients report constant discomfort, on-again-off-again radiation of pain, slow loss of range of motion, and typically do not have a time or event to relate a start of the pain.

As we age, the spine and discs degenerate. In the disc, this happens by a loss of height, dehydration, and loss of flexibility of the tissue. In the spine, and other high-stress bone and joint areas, degeneration happens by bone growth, bone spurs, and rigidity of the joints. This degeneration can cause enough of a response that bone will grow around areas where nerves pass from the spinal cord to the rest of the body (Intervertebral foramen or IFV) taking an already small space and slowly closing it down.

3) Piriformis Syndrome - Posterior Hip Tightness

We hit on this at length in the first part of our sciatica series. The relationship between the sciatic nerve and the piriformis muscle is well established. Most people have a sciatic nerve the tracks superficially (toward the surface) over the top of the piriformis muscle or just inferior to it. However, there is an appreciable percentage of the population where the sciatic nerve or a branch from it, pierces the middle of the piriformis muscle. It is believed to be the main culprit of 2-12% of sciatica pain with research on both sides stating over and under-diagnosis. Either way, anatomical and occupational variants are common causes of sciatic nerve pain as well as low back pain.

 
Credit: Allan Ropper, M.D., Ross Zafonte, D.O. Sciatica Review Article. New England Journal of Medicine

Credit: Allan Ropper, M.D., Ross Zafonte, D.O. Sciatica Review Article. New England Journal of Medicine

 

4) Double Crush Syndrome

Double Crush Syndrome, many of the cases we see fall into this category. Let me explain.

A patient presents after a fall, accident, or just a bad nights sleep with a chief complaint of sciatica with low back pain. An exam reveals a limited range of motion in the lumbar spine, tightness of the muscle in the posterior hip, namely the piriformis muscle, and numbness and tingling down the leg. Let's say that an MRI was ordered and it revealed a mild to moderate disc bulge.

Crush One - The disc bulge, assumed to be caused or irritated by the incident, it mildly compressing the nerve. Crust Two - In response to this injury, the body goes into defense mode and muscles begin to tighten, namely those of the posterior hip.

The initial compression at the spinal level causes a 3/10 pain, when you add in the tightness and compression at the hip, the patient is now up to a 7/10 pain with shocks of pain during specific movements. This is a Double Crush.

As with most, the disc issue is hard to affect with treatment directly, but focus can be directed toward the hip muscles, proper movement of the area and exercises to help with mobility and pain are prescribed, bringing the person back down to a 4/10 pain and allowing them to maintain most daily activities while the disc heals…remember, TIME heals discs.

5) Pregnancy

While this is not a diagnosable cause of Sciatica, sciatica is a very common complaint from expecting mothers. The cause here can be as elusive as any other, but pregnancy, the position of the baby, and the mothers specific size, anatomy, and lifestyle habits and experience with sciatica pain before the pregnancy. While there are many unknowns here, sciatica pain typically affects mothers-to-be in the latter half of the pregnancy, and most will respond to conservative care.

RED FLAGS

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Sciatica is a very well described condition. The direct cause can be challenging to uncover, but there are a few things to be aware of if you are suffering from sciatic nerve pain. If you are experiencing any of the below items, we suggest you seek care immediately to assure the condition does not cause long term issues and to direct you to the right healthcare provider. Most cases can be managed conservatively (Chiropractic, Physical Therapy, or At Home) while others require medical intervention (injections, imaging, or surgery).

  • Progressive neurological symptoms. If you are experiencing numbness, tingling, or weakness that is worsening, please seek help from a trained provider.

  • If your injury is the result of a fall, auto accident, or home/work accident, consulting with a healthcare provider will help rule out any significant issues and speed our recovery.

  • As with other serious low back injuries, if you experience any loss of bowel or bladder control, this is an immediate ER referral.

  • If you have have been dealing with sciatica for more than 1 week without any relief, it is time to get help. Most self-resolving injuries and pain will let up after a couple days.


Dr. Reheisse is a Board Certified Chiropractic Sports Physician practicing in Cottonwood Heights Utah. Revive Sport & Spine provides evidence-supported chiropractic care and conservative sports injury management.