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Back Pain vs. Sciatica: how can you tell?

This article is Sponsored by Novocur

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, ‘approximately 80 percent of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lifetimes.’ Although there are many risk factors and causes, ‘sciatica’ is one of the top types of pain people experience. Sciatica is also one of the most misunderstood back conditions because patients often referred to it as ‘back pain’ even though the pain runs down the back of the legs through the sciatic nerve.

What is Sciatica? 

Sciatica can be painful and definitely gives you a reason to see a physician quickly once you are experiencing it. However, it is also an easily misdiagnosed issue if you are self-assessing your options for pain management. Though sometimes occurring at the same time, sciatic pain isn’t necessarily interchangeable with back pain. Sciatica is a result of irritation from a bulging or herniated disc that applies pressure to the nerve roots formed along the sciatic nerve. Sciatica can only occur where the sciatic nerve travel, which starts in your lower spine and continues down the back of your leg by way of your pelvis.

If you have sciatica, you may find you’re experiencing pain whenever a muscle in your lower body contracts. This is a result of the irritated sciatic nerve traveling through tight gluteal muscles when they are compressed. The squeezing of the sciatic nerve is what results in a painful experience.

It goes beyond back pain

Sciatic pain doesn’t actually occur in the back. Sciatica originates from your lower spine and will primarily be experienced down to your buttock, back of your leg, and sometimes even down to your toes.

We’ve talked in previous articles about some of the surprising reasons people experience chronic back pain. Similarly, small changes in your body can result in sciatic symptoms such as incorrectly lifting heavy items, degenerative arthritis in the spine, or carrying extra weight during pregnancy.

Put it to the test

How can you tell the difference between back pain and Sciatica? If you’re still feeling unsure about the location of where your pain is originating, pain management experts suggest giving yourself a walking test. True sciatic symptoms include tingling, numbness and, most noticeably, weakness in your lower body including the buttocks, legs or feet.

Take a walk across the room first on your heels. If you find yourself unable to keep your feet elevated, this could be a result of weakness in your lower legs from sciatica. The same test can be done only on your toes, where your calf muscles might also be affected. Putting a stretch on the hamstring muscles may also reproduce sciatic pain down the leg.

How to know when it’s time to seek a doctor 

We’ve discussed in other articles when it comes to back pain, and the ways to know when it’s time to see a doctor. Initial symptoms of sciatica might be enough to signal you to seek pain management solutions. However, if more extreme symptoms kick in, you won’t want wait to prolong a doctor’s visit much longer.

Long-term compression and pain of the nerves can result in leg weakness, numbness, and more serious nerve damage if left unaddressed for extended periods.

More extreme symptoms beyond pain for sciatica can result in incontinence and progressive weakness and sensation loss in the legs. A condition known as Cauda Equina is “caused by significant compression of the nerve sac in the lower spine,” according to Alan Villavicencio, MD contributor at Spine Health.

Know your options

Everyone has a different pain tolerance and depending on the severity of your pain as a result of sciatica, there are a variety of solutions to improve your quality of life. Physical therapy or anti-inflammatory injections such as transforaminal epidural injections and trigger point injections are an option for immediate relief. Dry needling is a non-medicated procedure that helps to break up trigger points within a tight muscle bundle to relax the tissue around the nerve.

There are also modern techniques that are making great strides in progressive pain management using regenerative medicine and stem cells. One technique involves isolating regenerative factors from your blood and injecting them into the disc to reduce inflammation and to plug the tear in the disc, which is causing the problem. It works like patching a hole in flat tire.

With so many options, it is no longer necessary to take the “grin and bear it” approach to experiencing pain. Innovative pain management specialists are making it easier than ever accurately diagnose and treat chronic pain for long-term solutions.

Dr. Alex Bigham is the owner and CEO of Novocur Pain Management Clinics and has over 18 years of healthcare experience in private practice and Ambulatory Surgical Center settings. Novocur offers advanced treatment options in a concierge type practice without the concierge price tag. Dr. Bigham appears frequently on local TV and radio programs to discuss the latest in Pain Management or related health topics.