The spine is comprised of 24 vertebrae, ligaments, muscles, the spinal cord and spinal discs. In medicine, the spine is divided into 4 sections- the cervical region, the thoracic region, the lumbar region and the sacral region. The cervical region contains 7 vertebrae located at the top of the spine. This area of the spine is located in the neck. The next region is the thoracic spine. It is made of 12 vertebrae that are attached to the ribs. This area of the spine is in the upper back. The lumbar region of the spine is located in the lower back and contains 5 vertebrae. The last region is located at the bottom of the spine and contains 5 bony segments that are fused together. This area is called the sacral region of the spine.In between each vertebra is a spinal disc. These discs are designated according to the two vertebrae that the disc lies between. For example, an L2-L3 disc is located between the second and third vertebrae in the lumbar region of the spine. The spinal disc cushions the vertebrae.
There are a number of spinal issues, including sciatica and herniated discs. Both of these problems cause pain; however, they are separate conditions. Let’s take a look at the definition of each condition, the common causes of these conditions and treatment methods that may help heal the spine.
What is a Herniated Disc?
A spinal disc is similar to a jelly donut, according to the Mayo Clinic. The disc has a soft center and a firmer exterior. If the exterior becomes damaged, the jelly inside the disc can leak out. This is known as a herniated disc. The leaking material may irritate the nerves in the vertebra and cause pain, weakness or numbness.
The sciatic nerve is the longest and largest nerve in the body. It begins in the lumbar region of the spine, extends through the buttock region and travels down the outside thigh, to the hamstring area and all the way down to the toes. When this nerve becomes irritated (sciatica), pain, tingling, weakness and numbness can occur.
What Causes Sciatica and Herniated Discs?
Herniated discs are caused by disc degeneration, inactivity, improper lifting, injuries to the back as well as aging. Sciatica can be caused by a herniated disc, a pinched nerve, infection in the lumbar spine, spinal injuries, tumors in the lumbar region and inflammation. The risk of developing either of these conditions increase if you are overweight, work in a physically demanding job that requires repetitive lifting, twisting, pulling, or pushing, or if you have a family history of back problems.
What Treatment Options Are Available?
If you suffer from a herniated disc or sciatica, there are several treatment options. Some doctors will recommend surgery. Back surgery is often used to decompress a pinched nerve root or to stabilize the spine. The types of surgery used to relieve back pain include a spinal fusion and a discectomy. A spinal fusion fuses two vertebrae together to help increase stability in the spine. Instability of the spine is often caused by degenerative disc disease. A discectomy removes the herniated disc material that is causing pain. Unfortunately, back surgery may not relieve the patient’s pain and may result in failed back surgery syndrome.
Oftentimes, sciatica and a herniated disc can be relieved using more conservative treatment methods, such as chiropractic care, physical therapy, pulsed cold lasers and McKenzie exercises.
- Chiropractic care involves manipulating the spine to correct and enhance joint function, thus alleviating inflammation and reducing pain. A chiropractor will use gentle pressure to realign the spine using manual or mechanical high-velocity thrusts or spinal mobilization using gentle stretches or range of motion exercises with or without the assistance of a drop table.
- Physical therapy uses a combination of exercises, including strengthening exercises to strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the back, abdominal region, hips and buttocks; and stretching exercises to increase flexibility in the spine and to loosen tense muscles that are contributing to the patient’s pain. Physical therapy may also include hot and cold therapy, massage and ultrasound therapy to increase circulation and decrease inflammation.
- Pulsed cold laser therapy is a non-invasive therapy used to promote healing and decrease inflammation. It typically takes between 8 and 30 series of treatment to attain full relief. This therapy uses a low-level, non-thermal laser that passes through the skin to promote intercellular metabolism, which increases the rate of healing in herniated discs where the blood supply has been diminished.
- McKenzie exercises were developed specifically to help relieve sciatica and low back pain. These exercises are a defined algorithm that helps to determine the cause of the pain and develop an exercise protocol to relieve the patient’s pain. The exercises are done while lying as well as standing. The patient will be educated on how to reduce the occurrence of back pain in the future.
There are many causes of a herniated disc or sciatica, including trauma, poor posture, repetitive injuries, inactivity, obesity and a family history. The pain from both of these conditions can be debilitating.
Rather than risking a surgery that may fail, you can consult our chiropractor and try the methods described above before considering surgery.