Sciatica isn’t actually a medical condition but a term used to describe symptoms of pain, numbness, tingling, and/or other sensations along the sciatic nerve. This nerve—the longest in the body—begins with nerve roots exiting the spinal cord in the lower back, runs down the hip, and branches out through the back of the leg to the ankle and foot. That’s why irritation or injury to this nerve can result in symptoms of sciatica in any of these parts of the body.
The primary underlying cause of sciatica is herniation of a lumbar disc. Intervertebral discs lie between adjacent bones, or vertebrae, in the spine. They have a soft center and tough exterior that enables them to cushion the vertebrae and help hold the spine in place. Herniation (also called a ruptured or slipped disc) occurs when an acute or repetitive injury or degeneration results in a break or tear in the outer layer, causing some of the soft inner gel to escape and impinge on a nerve.
Scans and Surgery Aren’t the Best Sciatica Treatments
Although herniated discs don’t always cause problems such as sciatica, when they do, it’s only natural that you’d want to do something like get an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI. But my advice is to just wait. There is a growing consensus that most imaging scans for low back pain are an unnecessary waste of resources with a serious potential to harm. CTs expose patients to hefty doses of radiation, and findings on MRI, the most popular scans for patients with sciatica, have little correlation with symptoms. Many people with MRI-detected disc herniation have absolutely no symptoms!
Nevertheless, abnormal MRI findings all too often lead to surgery, which is just not all that effective when it comes to treatments for sciatica. Research shows that 15–20 percent of patients have recurring or enduring sciatica whether they have surgery or not—and that 80–85 percent recover regardless of treatment.
In a 2013 study, repeat MRIs were done on 283 patients a year after they had undergone either surgery or conservative treatments for sciatica. About 84 percent of the patients in both groups reported a favorable outcome, yet MRIs revealed that disc herniation was still visible in 35 percent who had a favorable outcome—and in 33 percent who had an unfavorable outcome.
Time and TLC Are the Best Sciatica Treatments
The majority of sciatica attacks clear up on their own within six to eight weeks. Herniated discs recede, symptoms resolve, and things get back to normal. That said, there are a number of sciatica treatments that will put you on the fast track to recovery.
Massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic are excellent treatments for sciatica. Massage gently stretches the muscles and helps release sciatic nerve compression. Acupuncture opens up energy pathways, with profound effects throughout the body, and chiropractic manipulations return supporting structures to their proper alignment.
High-intensity laser can also help ease the symptoms of sciatica. The most powerful pain-relieving medical laser available, it penetrates deep into the tissues to reduce swelling, increase circulation, and stimulate tissue repair.
What About Pain Relief?
I am not totally averse to short courses of ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen, or other over-the-counter pain relievers, but I suggest that you try the natural route first.
Start with a curcumin supplement such as Meriva. Curcumin is renowned for its anti-inflammatory properties—and for its poor absorption. Meriva overcomes this by binding the herbal extract to lecithin for enhanced bioavailability. It really works. In fact, a recent study showed that 2,000 mg of Meriva was as effective as 1,000 mg of acetaminophen in relieving pain. The suggested dose of Meriva for pain relief is 1,500–2,000 mg once or twice a day.
Some physicians prescribe analgesics, muscle relaxers, and nerve pain medications for sciatica, but I discourage their use—unless they’re applied topically. When specially prepared compounds of these drugs are rubbed into the skin over a painful area, you get rapid relief without dangerous side effects. Topical prescription pain relievers must be ordered from compounding pharmacies.
If you’ve ever experienced sciatica, you know that once is enough. Therefore, after the acute phase diminishes, you must take steps to prevent recurrences. Exercise is key, with a concentration on core muscle strength, spinal flexibility, posture, and proper body mechanics. Weight loss is also important. The human frame is not equipped to carry extra pounds, and the older we get, the less forgiving our backs become.
Rest assured, by following these recommendations you have a very good chance of saying goodbye to sciatica once and for all.