5 Causes of Sciatica

First, let us define what sciatica actually is and is not. Sciatica is, very specifically, pain along the sciatic nerve stemming from irritation of that nerve. The sciatic nerve is formed from a conglomeration of spinal nerves in the low back which binds together into one sheath. This nerve runs under the piriformis muscle in the pelvic area, then runs in between the two parts of the biceps femoris, also known as the hamstrings. It has become common to call any pain in the leg which is suspected to come from the back, sciatica. However, sciatica is a nerve pain which is the same feeling you get when you hit your “funny bone.” Most leg pain, and consequently what most people call sciatica, is actually referred pain. That is a different post. To be a true diagnosis of sciatica, it must be nerve pain that stems from the lumbar spine and runs into the buttock and/or down the backside and middle of the thigh. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about what causes it!

  1. Disc Injury. Disc injuries are the most common back ailment. When a disc bulges or herniates, it can occupy the space where the spinal nerves exit from the vertebral column. If a disc bulges too far it can push against the nerve root causing pain to travel down the sciatic nerve and beyond. Sometimes, the bulge will hit the nerve and then pull back enough so that the sciatic pain is not constant. If the disc is in constant contact with the nerve, one can experience pain, numbness and tingling, weakness, and other symptoms. Chiropractic can help, but these can take a long time to heal and consistency makes the difference. Traction, rehabilitation exercises, physical therapy, and stretching can also help if done properly. If it comes to it, cortisone injections and surgery may be last resort options.
  2. Inflammation. With injury comes inflammation. Though the disc is the most common injury, there are several other structures in the area of the nerves that make the sciatic nerve that can be injured. Inflammation is toxic and can cause its own set of issues. Nerves are especially sensitive to inflammation. Icing, NSAIDs like ibuprofen, Chiropractic, and steroids can all help reduce inflammation. When the inflammation is in check, the back and sciatic pain will diminish. When the area with the sciatic nerve or nerve root is inflamed. The symptoms will remain constant.
  3. Sacro-Iliac (SI) Joint Dysfunction. The sciatic nerve crosses the SI Joint just after it forms the large nerve. If the pelvis shifts or is not working properly, it can irritate the Sciatic Nerve through direct pressure, inflammation, or by causing muscle tightness or spasms from the imbalance. Adjusting the SI joint will help reduce inflammation and muscle guarding, as well as move it away from contact with the nerve if that is the case. Chiropractic is by far the best thing for this case but a clever physical therapist can help, too. Exercise, stretching, and icing may help but can irritate it, as well.
  4. Piriformis Syndrome. This diagnosis has become pretty popular. I find that it is misdiagnosed more often than not. The piriformis is a little pear-shaped muscle (hence the name, piri means pear), that spans the SI joint. The Sciatic Nerve runs underneath it in most individuals. If this muscle tightens, it can compress the sciatic nerve and cause sciatica. The piriformis can tighten for various reasons including any of the above-mentioned maladies. Usually, I find the piriformis is a secondary issue. Sometimes, however, it can take on a life of its own after the other condition has resolved. If it is, truly, piriformis syndrome, the best thing to do is have a specialist perform a muscle release on it. Active release, myofascial release, Bowen, Rolfing, massage, etc. can all help if done right. Be aware that if it only helps for a little while, then there is probably another issue that is still causing the muscle to tighten or guard.
  5. Direct Contact. Because the Sciatic Nerve runs through the buttock and down the back of the leg, the way one sits can cause sciatica. The most common cause is a wallet in the back pocket. Additionally, a seat that curves upward along its lip can put pressure on the legs and irritate the nerve. Unfortunately, I have seen this most often in vehicles.  The solution for these is obvious. The trick is to figure it out before it causes problems more difficult to remedy.

There you have it. Probably not a comprehensive list but definitely the most common causes. Sciatica is actually rarer than it seems. When you have it, however, it is very painful and can be difficult to treat. If you are experiencing sciatica or any type of pain or other symptoms down the leg, chiropractic can help. And, like all conditions, being prompt and consistent makes for better and quicker healing.

How Do I Know If My Chiropractic Treatments Are Helping?

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One of the most fulfilling yet difficult aspects of my career is helping people navigate their journey to better health. Healing is a process that can take a lot of time. We tend to think of that process as a straight road from disease or injury to health but that is the exception rather than the rule. Often, things feel worse before they feel better and there are always plateaus and valleys. Helping patients to have faith in the process and continue care inspite of bumps in the road is a worthy challenge.

Everyone comes into the office with disfunction. Not all disfunction is symptomatic but it all has potential to become so. Sometimes people come in with symptoms that are just starting to show but during further examination, I discover that those symptoms are just the tip of a very large disfunctional iceberg. I know that when I start chipping away at the disfuntion below the surface it is going to make those symtoms much more obvious. This can be very alarming. In addition, symptoms can change or move locations. People who are more prone to worry, often need a lot of reassurance to stay the course. There are several signs and symptoms that may cause concern but are actually indicative of progress. Most of these happen in early stages of care.

Pain will often increase with increased movement. Adjustments are designed to move joints that have been stuck or moving improperly for some time. Getting them to move again can cause pain. It is not always pleasant but it is a necessary step. As a rule, the pain should be more of an ache or soreness. Furthermore, pain can centralize and therefore increase in intensity. Centralized pain, or pain that is focalizing on the disfunctional joint, is usually more painful than a broad spread out pain. In this phenomenon, the pain is going back to where it belongs which is a very positive step. The closer your symptoms are to the structure that is actually causing the symptoms, the better the body will be at promoting healing in that area.

Symptoms often change especially when nerves are involved. If a nerve is significantly injured, the worst thing is complete numbness with zero sensation. There is actually no pain. When we lessen the irritation, the sensation is one of pins and needles and achiness. This can be followed by soreness. These symptoms will wax and wane for some time before a complete recovery.

Another change that can happen that will cause a patient mental anguish is when a symptom switches sides. We often see this is disc related injuries. This is not necessarily a bad thing either. It tells me that the disc is not completely stuck in one bulging position and can change or, even better, that it has not degenerated to the point of no return. The ability to change means it can heal.

I find it much better to not focus on symptoms but to look at movement patterns, muscle tone, and inflammation. If range of motion is improving and muscles are calming down, then progress is being made, and it is only a matter of consistency and time before symptoms start to go away for long stretches of time. When people ask if they are getting better, or complain that they are not any better, when I know they are, I usually ask them how they feel after an adjustment. More often than not, they feel significantly better but it just does not last as long as they think it should. As we get better, we also tend to forget how bad the pain was. The contrast of any pain when you have experienced little to no pain promotes the idea that one is not improving. Perspective is the key.

If you feel like chiropractic is not helping you, please take a step back and consider the big picture before you cut your care short, thus nullifying all of the hard work you and your doctor have done to help you become functional again.

 

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Do Your Hands Fall Asleep?

Most of us have experienced it. There you are sitting in what seems like a comfortable position, watching tv. All of sudden you notice that you have no feeling in your hand! It has fallen asleep. You move from the all-of-a-sudden awkward position trying to pause the show you are watching but you can’t because you have no feeling. You do the obligatory shaking of the hand trying to get it to wake up. It starts to get some feeling back but really it just feels  like someone is jabbing you with thousands of pins and needles. Then you start to flex and extend you fingers. It finally starts to wake up and you are able to reverse back and watch what you missed. Slowly, the hand goes back to normal. You have just experienced paresthesia.

The scenario described is the least serious form of paresthesia. It is usually temporarily caused from either a direct pressure on a nerve or by cutting off blood supply to the nerve. Once you release the pressure or get the blood moving, feeling starts to return. One still needs to be careful in such a situation. I have a  patient who tried to walk when, unbeknownst to her, she had a foot that had fallen asleep. When she got up to walk, she fell and shattered that numb foot requiring surgery and a litany of issues. So, be careful!

The bigger issue, however, happens when parasthesia comes on insidiously. In these types of situations, there is something deeper that is irritating the nerve. For the hand, this can happen at the carpal tunnel, at the elbow, at the shoulder, under the pectoralis minor muscle, under the scalene muscles, and at the nerve roots in the neck. Irritation can be caused by swelling of soft tissue (ligaments, muscles or tendons), by bulging discs, by stretched nerves due to poor posture, by a deficiency in blood supply due to a host of conditions, and the list goes on. If your hand consistently falls asleep, you need to figure out the cause. It could be a simple remedy or it could be a sign of something serious. The longer a nerve is injured, the longer it takes for it to heal. In addition, you run the risk of injury to the area the nerve supplies.

Pillow Talk. (About Actual Pillows, Not the Other Kind)

Ah, the frustration of finding the perfect pillow! Have you found yours, yet? Once you do, your spouse or kid will probably steal it or your dog will chew it up. Or, do you have that pillow that has been perfect for longer than you are willing to admit and it is just moments away from disintegrating in the middle of the night as you blissfully rest? I know how it is. I wish I was writing this article with the perfect solution for everyone. Alas, there is no perfect solution but there are some general guidelines that can help.

First off, finding the right pillow can take time and you may need to invest a little in several different pillows. How much is up to your commitment to a perfect night’s sleep and how important it is for your neck to feel good in the morning.

The most important factor to consider is that you need to keep your head and neck is a neutral position relative to the shoulders. If your head is closer to one should over the other or flexed forward or extended back, you are no longer in a neutral position. This can put a strain on the joints of the neck and cause shortening of one side of the neck muscles and conversely lengthening of the other side. Because we spend so much of our lives sleeping, it is vital that you keep your neck and head in a position that puts little stress on all of the structures.

For side sleepers the biggest issue typically is finding  a pillow thick enough to take up the space between the shoulders and the head. This is especially hard if you have broad shoulders. A firmer pillow is usually your best bet because it will hold its shape all night. Down pillows tend to be fine for the first few hours then compress during the night. I, personally, sleep on a water based pillow that holds it shape really well but is soft enough to be comfortable. It has over a gallon of water in it so it weighs a ton which makes it hard to change the pillow case, but what do you do?

Back sleepers typically need a fairly thin pillow or no pillow at all depending on the curvature of the upper back. The shape of your neck will largely determine the style of pillow. If you have a good curvature (which is ideal), a pillow that helps maintain the arch can be great. If your neck is unfortunately straight or reversed, then that style of pillow might be very uncomfortable. Some say that using a pillow as a neck orthotic to restore the ideal curvature is a good idea. I could definitely make that argument but sacrificing sleep might not be worth it.

OK, I know the what you are thinking, “I switch from side to back all night.” Let me say it right now, unless you are just the right structure, there is not really a pillow that is dual purpose. Sorry! If you have a pillow thick enough to take up the space between the head and shoulders, it is going to be too thick to sleep on your back and vice versa.  Furthermore, if you are a stomach sleeper, there is no way to keep your head in neutral and still breath unless you have a slot for your mouth and nose.

There you have the basic guidelines. Happy hunting. FYI, just because pillows are expensive doesn’t mean they are going to be a good fit for you. Still, cheap is cheap. The pillows I sell in my office are around $50, if that is useful. Good luck and sweet dreams!

It’s Not All About Pain, People!

Pardon my rant for moment and please consider what I am about to say. Pain is a symptom or an indicator. Pain is annoying. Pain can be frustrating. Pain can even be debilitating. Treating for pain, however, is a terrible way help someone get out of pain.

The origins of pain are not well understood and can be a very deep topic. That saying, from my study, most of our pain is distributed through the limbic center of the brain. The limbic system is really the emotional center of the brain. So, to me, pain is an emotional response. Ever notice that some people have a high pain threshold and others have little to none? Likewise, some cultures are very stoic about pain while others are extremely passionate. The very same stimulus can be applied but the reaction is completely different.

Don’t get me wrong. Pain is very real. I am not suggesting we write off anyone in pain with the idea that it is all in their head. What I am suggesting is that we keep pain in perspective. Bad pain does not always mean horrible damage. Likewise, some of the most serious damage to the human body can display very little pain. Furthermore, pain can be a good thing when it gives a warning that something can be harmful. Have you ever stepped on hot sand and immediately pulled away so you didn’t burn your feet? What if you were a diabetic with poor blood circulation and therefor poor feeling in your feet. Would you say that it was a good thing to burn your feet because you couldn’t feel it? Of course not!

Rather than focus on the pain of an injury, I like to focus on the rehabilitation or function. If we only treated for pain, very few people would ever recover. Rehabilitating an injury whether chronic or acute can be painful. Let me say that again, TREATMENT CAN BE PAINFUL!  Sometimes we have to break down a lot of scar tissue. This will be painful. When you are dealing with functional and physical medicine, like chiropractic, the end result is to get you functional which will eventually lead to less pain. By the way, this takes time.

Please don’t kid yourself that you can rehabilitate an injury without pain or discomfort. It is just not how the body works. Would you expect to work with a personal trainer to get in shape and never feel soreness or fatigue? Instead, focus on improving function and accept pain for what it is. In the words of the Dred Pirate Roberts aka Westley from The Princess Bride, -“Life is pain, your highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

Subluxation

You many not know this, but there is a word which is either the bane or the glory of almost every chiroprator out there. That word is “subluxation” pronounced sub lux a (long a) shun). Don’t ask why there is so much controversy. Suffice it to say that people squabble over semantics. What is important is to understand the concept.

The literal translation of the word subluxation is minor dislocation. “Sub” means minor or small and “to lux” means to dislocate. When the modern founders of chiropractic started using the term, the thought process was that vertebrae would sublux from its natural position. This minor dislocation would then pinch on the nerve root which exits in between the vertebrae. Pinching the nerve root wouild then lead to poor communication along that nerve channel to the intended organs. Poor communication would then lead to disease.

Makes sense, right? Well, through the years we have learned more. First off, it doesn’t take a dislocation to cause problems with the nerve root. All it takes is a little bit of irritation. This can happen from direct contact from the vertebra, muscle, ligament, whatever, or from inflammation in the area. The point being, the vertebra doesn’t have to shift and pinch the nerve to create what we think of as a subluxation. If the joints of the vertebrae are funcitoning properly in any form that is enought to create irritation of the nereve root and therefore disease.

The goal then for chiropractic patients is to strive to reduce one’s subluxations in order to improve one’s health. So, when we get down to it, chiropractors find these areas of dysfunction and help train the joints to funciton properly.

What is Health?

What is health? I ask this question all the time both to others and to myself. When I remind myself of the answer on a daily basis, I have real purpose to my work.

The definition of health used to be the absence of disease. That is a pretty narrow definition and, to my way of thinking, isn’t really possible. I think everyone has something that causes dis-ease and therefore, by definition has a disease. For that reason I think we have evolved as a society into a broader more dynamic view of health.

Health can be good or bad. It is a spectrum, if you will. Everyone alive has health to some degree. It is kind of like the old saying “If I didn’t have bad luck, I would have no luck at all.” Some people have bad health and others have good health.

To me, good health means that all aspects of the body function as they should. This includes functioning with other parts of the body. Proper function and even synergy of the body relies on good communication. Good communication is in large part dependent on a properly functioning nervous system.

The nervous system consists of the brain, the spinal cord, the cranial nerves, the nerve roots, and all the nerves with their bundles that come off of the nerve roots. The most common area of the nervous system to have a problem is the nerve root.

When vertebra in the back is dysfunctional it irritates the nerve root which alters communication to the organs and other parts of the body that nerve root innervates and leads to disease. Chiropractic helps relieve the irritation of the nerve. Simple as that!