Sciatica is the term given to describe symptoms caused by irritation of the sciatic nerve. Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT a medical diagnosis. The sciatic nerve is formed from spinal nerves exiting the lower back, and runs through the buttock and down the back of both legs. Any pain or symptom experienced along this nerve is referred to as ‘sciatica’.
Common symptoms include:
One sided pain that may be felt in the lower back, buttock, hip and leg. It may also radiate to the foot and/or toes
Pain that can be described as severe, burning, sharp, tingling, searing
Weakness and or numbness in the leg, foot and toes
The problem causing sciatica is actually the correct diagnosis. Common causes include:
Lumbar disc herniation
Degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis
Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spine)
Nerve entrapment e.g. from tight musculature surround the lumbosacral area
Most sciatic pain is treated and managed with conservative treatment. As sciatica can be caused by a range of different issues as described above, it is important that an appropriate assessment is performed to provide specific treatment. Not all sciatic pain is the same!
Our physiotherapists will provide a range of treatment which may include:
Advice and education about the condition and how to manage the symptoms, generally exercise and staying active rather than bed rest
Strengthening exercises for supporting muscles e.g. lower back, core, hip
Stretching exercises for tight muscles
Hands on treatment for stiff joints and/or tight muscles
An individualised exercises program for self-management and future prevention.
Most cases of sciatica resolve by themselves within six weeks to three months. Sciatica can also be caused by narrowing of the nerve tunnel between discs due to osteoarthritis. Elderly people who suffer from disk degeneration as a consequence of ageing tend to be troubled the most by sciatica.
If sciatic pain is bothering you, make an appointment with one of our physiotherapists to aid in a correct diagnosis for optimal management.
If you want to steer clear of lower back pain, remember this: Arch is good, flat is bad.
Back pain is anything but rare; only headaches and colds are more common. According to the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, Americans spend more than $50 billion each year on lower back pain, which is the No. 1 cause of job-related disability in the country and one of the leading contributors to missed time from work.
There’s acute lower back pain, sometimes intense but generally short-lived discomfort resulting from injury to the lower back incurred during sustained physical activity (playing sports, doing yard work) or by a sudden jolt (being in a vehicle collision). But it’s chronic lower back pain, the kind that lasts for more than three months, that is more debilitating and more difficult to treat.
Much of that chronic pain is caused by damage to the discs — the spongy, multi-function structures that lie between the spine’s vertebrae — in the lower part of the back right above the pelvis known as the lumbar region. And much of that damage is caused by poor body mechanics — the way people stand, walk, lift, carry, reach, bend, sit and sleep — in which the back is too often flat, not arched.
“The key to avoiding lower back pain is keeping pressure off your lower lumbar discs,” said Tadhg O’Gara, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. “That means keeping an arch to your lower back.”
The intervertebral discs, essentially the spine’s shock absorbers, are under constant pressure, especially in the lower back, which supports the weight of the upper body. The five vertebrae in the lumbar region are naturally arched toward the front of the body, so bending forward compresses the front of these disks, which over time can force them out of position to press on one or more of the nerves emanating from the spinal cord. This condition — known as a bulging, herniated or ruptured disc — can cause pain in the lower back and elsewhere, especially the buttocks, thighs and even below the knee (sciatica). And that pain can be severe.
“People who haven’t had lower back pain don’t re alize how painful it is,” O’Gara said. “And many health care providers don’t realize how painful it is.”
So how is chronic lower back pain treated?
“The first thing to figure out is what exactly is causing the pain, because that determines what approach to take with treatment,” said Kristopher Karvelas, M.D., assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Wake Forest Baptist. “That’s not always easy. Pain is usually related to the discs, but other causes of low back pain have overlapping symptoms and pain patterns.”
Basic diagnostic methods include physical examination, review of the patient’s medical history and patient descriptions of the onset, location, severity and duration of the pain and of any limitations in movement. Imaging techniques such as X-rays, MRI and CT scans also can be employed to pinpoint the source of pain.
Once the reason behind the pain is determined, the most frequently prescribed treatment is physical therapy, not surgery.
“I typically reserve surgery for patients who have a medical need other than pain,” Karvelas said. “There’s a large toolbox that we can go to for patients, and surgery is the last tool.”
Depending on the individual patient’s condition, physical therapy programs usually include exercises designed to strengthen back and abdominal muscles and to promote proper posture and balance. These can include stretching, swimming, walking and even yoga. But education also is a key element.
“Patients need to recognize that posture and activity are crucial in relieving and preventing back pain,” Karvelas said. “They need to learn what exercises to do on their own and how to do them properly to prevent future flare-ups.
“We can help resolve acute back pain episodes, but when we are talking about chronic back pain, the pain may never resolve completely. However, we do use a team approach to treat patients and teach people how to cope with their pain effectively.
Our spinal columns are made of twenty four vertebrae stacked one above another on the pelvis. They are joined together at the front by discs and at the back by facet joints. When we bend forward, the vertebra above tilts and slides forward, compressing the disc and stretching the facet joints at the back of the vertebrae. When we bend backward, the disc compression is reduced at the front and the facet joints are compressed at the back. In the upper neck and thoracic areas we tend to have more facet joint strains and in the lower cervical spine and lumbar spine areas, disc injuries are more frequent. This is because our upper spine joints allow us to turn our heads to see, hear and smell, so they need mobility but do not support much weight. Our lumbar spine bears around half our body weight and as we move and sit, there are huge, sustained, compressive loads on our discs.
CAUSES OF BACK PAIN
Disc injuries are the most common cause of low back pain and can range in severity from a mild intermittent ache, to a severe pain where people cannot move. Disc injuries occur mainly during sudden loading such as when lifting, or during repetitive or prolonged bending forces such as when slouching, rowing, hockey and while cycling. They are often aggravated by coughing and running. A flexed posture during slouching, bending or lifting is a frequent cause of disc damage because of the huge leverage and compression forces caused by gravity pulling down on the mass of the upper body.
It is important to understand that damage from small disc injuries is cumulative if discs are damaged at a faster rate than they can heal and the damage will eventually increase until it becomes painful. Pain sensing nerves are only on the outside of the disc, so by the time there is even small pain of disc origin, the disc is already significantly damaged internally where there are no nerve endings to feel pain with.
There may be a previous history of pain coming and going as the damaged area has become inflamed, perhaps was rested or treated, settled for a while but as the underlying problem was not fixed, the pain has flared up repeatedly since. This type of disc injury responds very well to Physiotherapy treatment.
A marked disc injury causes the outer disc to bulge, stretching the outer disc nerves. In a more serious injury, the central disc gel known as the nucleus, can break through the outer disc and is known as a disc bulge, prolapse or extrusion.
Spinal muscles are often blamed as the cause of spinal pain but this is rarely the cause of the pain. Muscle pain may develop as the muscles contract to prevent further damage as they protect the primary underlying painful structures. This muscle pain is secondary to the underlying pathology and when the muscles are massaged, given acupuncture etc, there is temporary relief but the pain will often come back, as the muscles resume their protective bracing. Treatment must improve the structure and function in the tissues which the muscles are trying to protect. The most common sources of primary pain are the discs, facet joints and their ligaments.
There are four facet joints at the back of each verteba, two attaching to the vertebra above and two attaching to the vertebra below. A facet joint strain is much like an ankle sprain and the joints can be strained by excessive stretching or compressive forces. The joint ligaments, joint lining and even the joint surfaces can be damaged and will then produce pain.
Facet joint sprains can occur during excessive bending but typically occur with backward, lifting or twisting movements. Trauma such as during a car accident or during repetitive or prolonged forces such as when slouching or throwing.
There are many other sources of back pain including arthritis, crush fractures and various disease processes. Your Physiotherapist will examine your back and advise you should further investigation be necessary.
SYMPTOMS OF BACK PAIN
Symptoms of structural back pain are always affected by movement. This is important to understand. Symptoms, usually pain but perhaps tingling and pins and needles, are often intense and may be sudden in onset but also may be mild and of gradual onset. There are other conditions which can produce back pain such as abdominal problems, ovarian cysts and intestinal issues. If you have symptoms in these areas which are not affected by movement, you must consult with your doctor. If you have chest, jaw or upper limb pain which is unaffected by movement, you must attend your doctor or hospital immediately.
Facet joints, discs, muscles and other structures are affected by our positions and movements. More minor problems produce central low back pain. With more damage, the pain may spread to both sides and with nerve irritation, the pain may spread down into the thigh or leg. As a general rule, disc pain is worse with bending, lifting and slouching and facet joint strains are worse twisting and bending backward or sideways. A severe disc problem is often worse with coughing or sneezing and on waking in the morning.
DIAGNOSIS OF BACK PAIN
Diagnosis of back injuries is complex and requires a full understanding of the onset history and a comprehensive physical examination. It is important for your Physiotherapist to establish a specific and accurate diagnosis to direct the choice of treatment. In some cases, the pain may arise from several tissues known as co-existing pathologies and each of these are treated as they are identified. Where the Physiotherapist requires further information or the management may require injections or surgery, the appropriate x-rays, scans and a referral will be arranged.
UPPER BACK AND LOWER BACK PAIN RELIEF
Lower Back pain treatment.
Eighty percent of adults will experience severe spinal pain at some time in their life. Much of this pain is called non-specific low back pain and is treated with generic non-specific treatment. This type of treatment often fails to provide lasting relief. However, Musculoskeletal Physiotherapists have developed specific diagnostic skills and specific treatment techniques, targeted to specific structures. We identify the structure and cause of the pain producing damage and develop specific advice and strategies to prevent further damage and promote healing.
Specific techniques are chosen to correct the structural and mechanical problems. Among many choices, treatment may include joint mobilisation, stretching, ice, strengthening and education. As normal tissue structure and function returns, there is a reduction in the inflammation and the pain will subside.
When normal movement has been achieved, the inflammation has settled and the structures have healed, your new strategies will reduce the possibility of the problem recurring. We use this specific approach to reduce or stop chronic pain.
While we have the choice to manipulate, adjust or click joints, patients with ongoing pain will seldom benefit from repeating these techniques. This is because our tissues are elastic and the benefit of the quick stretch of manipulation is lost, as the elastic tissues tighten and shorten again. Adjustments of this type have little long term benefit and often lead to an unhealthy dependence on the provider. Your Physiotherapist will choose a safer and more appropriate treatment for you.
Figures suggest that around 80% of people experience back pain at some time in their lives. Back and neck pain can be very debilitating so how a physiotherapist manages back pain treatment is essential to secure a positive result. Back pain can be localised in and around the spine, but can also be experienced as sciatic pain. Headaches and migraines are also commonly caused by neck issues.
Exercise is important
Exercise is gaining recognition as playing a vital role in the long term recovery and in preventing many musculoskeletal injuries, including back and neck pain. Exercise compliments physiotherapy treatment management and achieve long term results when trying to prevent and rehabilitate pain and injury by correcting the underlying causes, not just seeking to stop the pain.
The underlying biomechanics that cause back and neck pain
Most back pain is caused by excessive loading placed on muscles, joints, ligaments, spinal discs, etc. due to poor core stability. Core stability is traditionally defined as; an individual’s strength and control of their lower back, pelvic and abdominal muscles in order to maintain optimal postural alignment of the lower back and pelvis.
However it is important to also include the shoulder girdle and rib cage, as the lower back and pelvis do not operate in isolation, and muscles throughout the torso must act in a coordinated manner in order to maintain optimal postural alignment and also to initiate biomechanically efficient upper and lower limb movements.
A good analogy to help understand core stability is to consider how a tent is supported. A tent is held upright by a rigid tent pole. The bones of your spine act like a tent pole, however your spine is not rigid, so it relies on the support of ligaments and deep stabilising muscles to hold adjacent vertebrae and to help maintain optimal postural alignment i.e. stabilise the spine. If the muscles that stabilise the spine, pelvis, rib cage and shoulder are weak or are poorly controlled then your spine will tend to collapse, just like a tent pole made from a piece of spaghetti. There are many muscles that attach directly onto the spine, pelvis, rib cage and shoulders. These muscles move our torso and limbs and also assist with stabilising the core, acting in a similar way that guide ropes help to keep the tent pole upright. If a tent had guide ropes that pulled more on one side than on the opposite side then the tent would lean, so too, if the muscles on one side pulled more than the other due to imbalances in strength and/ or flexibility, or these muscles compensate for weak stabiliser muscles then they will pull your body into a poor postural alignment. One very important difference to note is that a tent only requires “static stability” i.e. support to maintain a single stationary position, whereas, the human body must have “dynamic stability” to provide support and maintain optimal alignment of their core and limbs whilst moving in many different ways to participate in sport, work and daily living activities.
How a physiotherapist corrects biomechanical faults
Physiotherapists conduct a comprehensive physical assessment and then use this information to design a personalised exercise program to improve posture/ biomechanics, core stability, flexibility, functional strength, cardiovascular fitness, balance and coordination. Programs focus on achieving long term results by correcting the underlying biomechanics causes of your pain, improving the strength of muscles that support your back and neck and teaching efficient movement for your specific sport, work or daily living activities. Expert supervision by an Physiotherapist ensures that each client completes the exercises with good technique to prevent further injury, to ensure that the exercises are effective, and also to ensure that progressions are made at safe and appropriate times.