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Battle of the Bulge: Slipped Discs and Sciatica

By Martha Michael

Active Woman with Sciatica Pain

On the health and wellness battlefield, it helps to know your enemy. And when the war is at the rear, finding out the cause is step one in the strategy that can lead to a complete about face.

If you find you’ve got numbness in your legs or sharp pain from your back down to your feet, it could be the result of sciatica. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center describes sciatica as the occurrence of pain from an inflamed or compressed nerve. The sciatic nerve extends from the lower back down the length of the leg.

Pain can be experienced anywhere along the sciatic nerve. Patients report symptoms such as:

  • Tingling
  • Burning
  • Sharp pain
  • Numbness
  • Pain when coughing or sneezing

Sciatica can cause discomfort in your back, through your posterior and down your legs to your ankle and foot. The symptoms appear when the sciatic nerve roots are irritated, according to Dartmouth-Hitchcock. This may be caused by arthritis, a pinched nerve, or foraminal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the area where the sciatic nerve exits the spine.

The Usual Suspect

In most cases, the enemy in the ranks is a herniated, or bulging, disc. A herniated disc occurs when the padding between the bones in your spine are damaged, causing it to bulge. When the disc pinches a nerve root, your legs may go numb, or you may at least experience tingling as a result.

Pain for a victim of sciatica is often greater at night and in some cases, more intense for more active individuals. But just setting up camp and sitting on your backside isn’t necessarily the best medicine.

Best Practices

Dartmouth-Hitchcock suggests alternating between taking walks and lying down as well as reducing the amount of time spent in a sitting position. It may also be beneficial to take warm showers, and utilize heating pads and ice packs as recommended.

How you walk can make a difference too. Stand erect -- head up, facing forward. If your head is too far forward, your back will be strained. Keep your shoulders relaxed. If they’re too tense, you should practice shrugging every few minutes during your walk to loosen your shoulders.

Cedars-Sinai recommends returning to routine activities as soon as possible, but incorporating walking, stretching, and perhaps therapy. Surgical options that remove part of the bulging disc are a last resort, only recommended if symptoms can’t be reduced otherwise.

Non-invasive Alternative

Well before considering invasive options, your best ammunition may be seeking chiropractic care. Because the origin of sciatica is the nerve root coming out of the spine -- the greatest area of expertise for a chiropractor -- it maximizes the effectiveness of your treatment. First, your practitioner will analyze your presenting symptoms through palpatory findings, muscle strength and range of motion tests. Next, a series of orthopedic and neurological exams may be performed. These methods make it easier to rule out other conditions and accurately diagnose the cause of your pain.

Initially, you may be instructed to rest in order to reduce inflammation along the nerve, and sometimes sciatica will diffuse on its own. Your practitioner will likely recommend applying heat or cold packs to the areas where you’re experiencing pain, depending on the acuteness of the condition. A spinal adjustment, which is a natural method for relieving pressure from the spine, is a treatment your chiropractor might also choose.

What’s even better than waiting for painful symptoms of sciatica to occur? Maintaining spinal health through regular care. Doing so makes it less likely to develop the need for an offensive strategy. After all, healthy discs don’t have the opportunity to booby trap the sciatic nerve.

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