The term sciatica refers to leg pain often accompanied by numbness and tingling or weakness beginning in the lower back and running through the buttocks and down the sciatic nerve in the back of each leg. The sciatic nerve is the largest single nerve in the body, about the size of your smallest finger. Here are some facts about sciatica:
- Sciatica is a symptom, not a disease
- It produces consistent pain, usually on only one side of the body
- Pain radiates down the leg and may go as far as the foot and toes
- Pain in the leg is described as searing, tingling, or burning
- Pain becomes worse when sitting
- Weakness, difficulty moving the leg, foot, or toes, and numbness
Five Ways to Know If It Is Sciatica
It is important to be aware that actual back pain does not accompany sciatica or, if it does, it is very minor. According to Dr. Eric Mayer, sports and spine specialist at Cleveland’s Clinic Center for Spine Health, if a patient reports 80% leg pain and very little back pain, it is more than likely that he or she has sciatica. So, how can you know for sure if the pain you are feeling is nerve-related and not coming from your muscles? Here are 5 tips to finding out.
- Weakness in your knee. As mentioned, the sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the entire body and runs from the lower spine all the way down into the foot. When it becomes pinched, the function becomes disrupted and results in pain, tingling, and weakness. We recognize that pain is pretty common, but pain and weakness in only one leg is a big indicator for doctors. Dr. Mayer notes patients often go to the ER for pain, but it really is the weakness that is concerning. He recommends if you recognize you are getting weak, it is important to seek professional care.
- You are not a runner. If you are not training for the next triathlon or running on the treadmill on a regular basis, you probably have sciatica, not a muscle strain. Piriformis syndrome is very similar to sciatic and has the same symptoms (pain, tingling, numbness beginning in the buttocks and running down the back of the leg). However, instead of a slipped disc being the reason, it is the piriformis muscle located near the top of the hip joint that is pressing on the sciatic nerve. You want to address the muscle pain to relieve the sciatic pain. If you are not an athlete, you probably are suffering from sciatica.
- You cannot reproduce your pain on demand. When telling your doctor you have pain, it is important to be specific. After all, would you simply order “ice cream” at the Ben and Jerry’s counter? To find out if your pain is sciatica or muscle induced, use your thumb to push hard on the muscles in your lower back. Try to exert at least 5 to 10 pounds of pressure. If you can trigger your pain by doing this, you are probably suffering from a muscle problem, not sciatica. If your muscles become shortened and tightened, they get thicker and do not get the proper nutrients and blood supply. This is what leads to pain when you press on it. Sciatica is not able to be produced through pressure.
- Testing positive for sciatica. One test that most doctors will try, especially if the cause is suspected to be a slipped disc, begins by having you lie down with your feet stretched out. Your doctor will then raise your leg up to 70 degrees. If you feel pain that radiates down your entire leg, below the knee, and even into the toes, you have sciatica. By stretching this leg, you also stretch the entire sciatic nerve and if the root is pinched, you will feel pain.
- Loss of bowel and bladder function. If this occurs in conjunction with sciatic pain, it is considered by doctors to be a surgical emergency. This is very rare, but if the spinal column is putting intense pressure on the sciatic nerve, permanent damage to bowel and bladder function is a possible risk. This is the time to seek professional care as soon as possible.
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So, the good news is that sciatica can often clear up on its own. Around 80 percent of the time, this is the case. Usually, an acute case of sciatica can clear up in under 90 days. Your primary care doctor may suggest medications to help you get through this time period. However, let’s look at sciatica at a different angle.
Natural Relief for Sciatica
If you are a regular sufferer of sciatica, you may have tried visiting a chiropractor in the past. He probably adjusted your lower back near the pain site. This may have given you some temporary relief, but sciatica returned again. One thing that can be overlooked is that sometimes the issues in the lower back may be coming from higher up in the spine.
Upper cervical chiropractic care, such as that here at Lazar Spinal Care in Ann Arbor, Michigan, focuses on the top bone of the spine, the atlas or C1 vertebra. When a misalignment is present here, the entire spine must shift and move to compensate for the weight of the head in order to keep it level. This twisting can easily impact the sciatic nerve, leading to sciatica. It is similar to toppling over a row of dominoes. The one at the beginning affects those all the way at the end.
We use a gentle method that does not require us to pop the neck or crack the back to get positive results. By encouraging these bones to realign naturally, adjustments last longer. Many have seen their sciatica pain improve with very few adjustments. There is no need for medication, and often the symptoms do not return.
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