The sciatic nerve is the largest (and longest) nerve of the body, reaching about the size of your thumb in diameter and running down the back of each leg. It is formed by four or five nerves branching off each side of the spinal cord. Each nerve then divides into many smaller nerves that travel to the thigh, knee, calf, ankle, foot and toes. When these nerves are irritated or affected by the inflammation of nearby soft tissues, doctors refer to this as sciatica.
Symptoms of Sciatica
People with sciatica can suffer from a wide range of symptoms. The pain may come and go or may be constant. Some people may feel only a dull ache or numbness, others feel intense shooting pains. The pain may run down the back into the buttock and upper leg, and may travel down the leg into the foot and toes.
Sitting in one position for long periods (while driving or working at a computer, for instance) can increase sciatic pain. Even simple things like walking, bending, turning or standing up may be difficult and painful. Tennis or golf and other twisting activities can cause sciatica pain to flare up. The pain may be in both legs or change from side to side. For some, back pain may be felt before any pain in the legs.
The Causes of Sciatica
One of the most common causes or sciatic leg pain is the Vertebral Subluxation Complex. It can be accompanied by the bulging or herniation of the soft pulpy discs which separate each spinal bone. This can irritate or put pressure on the sciatic nerve roots as they leave the spinal cord. The result can be an intense pain shooting down either or both legs.
Trauma or injury from accidents or falls can cause the disc to bulge or push out and press on the sciatic nerve. Many people call this a "slipped disc." The proper term is herniation.
Degeneration of the spine resulting from arthritis or long-standing or neglected back problems can also irritate the sciatic nerve. Cases of sciatica have even been reported following childbirth, usually due to pressure on the spine.
Finally, sciatica has also been linked to various non-spinal conditions. Advanced diabetes, tumors, constipation, and even vitamin deficiencies have been reported as causes.
Treatment for Sciatica
The traditional medical approach to managing sciatica is to treat the symptoms. This may include using painkillers, muscle relaxants, or anti-inflammatory medications. Injections directly into the nerve roots may also be used. In severe cases, surgery may be recommended.
The chiropractic approach to treating sciatica is to find the source of nerve irritation and relieve the pressure this is causing the pain. By correcting the source of the problem, the body can heal naturally. Sciatica, like other health conditions that can be traced to the spine, often responds dramatically to the restoration of normal spinal function through chiropractic care.
Chiropractic methods vary according to the specific source of sciatica. First, your chiropractor takes a complete history to determine when the problem first appeared and possible sources. Next, x-rays are taken and a complete physical and chiropractic exam is preformed. These tests are reviewed and discussed with you along with recommendations for treatment.
Research shows that when treated with chiropractic adjustments, sciatica has an 8-9% greater rate of recovery than if patients were to use therapy or standard medical care.
Treatment varies according to the severity of the condition. With most patients, a series of adjustments to move the related vertebra back to a more normal position is helpful to reduce the pressure on the nerve. In some cases, the use of ultrasound and ice is needed. Massage therapy to reduce the pain related to muscle spasms is frequently helpful. Combining adjustments with physical therapy has proven very successful in treating most sciatica.
Whatever the cause of sciatica, it is important to seek treatment promptly. Too many people wait, hoping the pain will go away or get better by itself. However, it is usually easier to treat a problem when it is first noticed. Long-term nerve damage may result from this delay in seeking treatment.