Sciatica can be a debilitating condition that prevents you from doing seemingly simple daily tasks like walking the dog or driving your car to work. An estimated 43% of the population will experience the pain of sciatica at some point in their lives. Sciatica is a condition that is very closely tied to lower back pain. Although some sciatica sufferers will not experience lower back pain along with their leg pain, the two may still be connected. To understand the relationship between the spine and your sciatica, we’ll explore the origins of the sciatic nerve within the body and how a spinal issue can be at the root of your pain.
The Anatomy of the Sciatic Nerve
The sciatic nerve is formed by the nerve roots that branch off from the spinal cord in the lower back. It is the longest and widest single nerve in your entire body. From its origins in the lower back, the sciatic nerve travels through the buttock (underneath the piriformis muscle), around the outside of the hip and down the back of each of the legs. The sciatic nerve gives sensation to most of the lower leg and foot and carries signals that control many leg muscles as well.
Sciatica can present differently in different individuals depending on which part of the nerve is involved. Sciatic nerve pain can have multiple characteristics, and these symptoms can vary from person to person:
- Pain in the leg that can be described as burning, searing, or tingling
- A sharp pain that can cause difficulty when trying to walk or stand from a seated position
- Radiating pain down the leg that can travel down into the toes
- Constant pain on one side of the hip, buttock, and/or leg – sciatica rarely happens on both sides
- Pain that can worsen when sitting
The pain of sciatica can range from an infrequent irritation to a constant, debilitating pain.
Common Causes of Sciatica
If you are experiencing pain anywhere along the course of the sciatic nerve, it’s an indication that the nerve is irritated. The most common sources of this nerve irritation arise in the low back:
- Muscle spasm in the back (or buttocks)
- Lumbar spinal stenosis – a narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back.
- Spondylolisthesis – when one vertebra slips forward or backward compared to the one next to it.
- Lumbar disc degeneration – the discs that sit between each vertebra act as cushions and can wear thin over time.
Sciatica can also become problematic in pregnant women in conjunction with the changes that occur as the fetus grows and the back and pelvis shift to accommodate. There are also some lifestyle-related risk factors that can be changed or avoided. Prolonged periods of sitting, either due to a sedentary lifestyle or a job that requires it, can increase the odds of developing sciatica. Obesity can increase the stress on your spine and spinal discs, and diabetes can increase the risk of nerve damage.
Getting at the Root of Your Sciatica
We started off by taking a look at the origins of the sciatic nerve itself and how it forms from nerves that branch from the lower back. Although that is where the sciatic nerve itself begins, troubles with your lower back can have their roots elsewhere in the spine. If you are in search of sciatica relief that is more than a mere temporary solution, then it is necessary to figure out what is causing the lower back to function abnormally.
The entire spine is connected by joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons. This inevitably means that changes in one place in the spine will have an effect on the rest of it, just like links in a chain. Your spine has the greatest freedom of movement at the very top where the head sits on top of the neck. It’s no surprise that you can move your head around much more freely than you can move any other area of your spine. Because of this broad range of movement this area, the upper cervical (upper neck) region of the spine can be the most vulnerable when it comes to injury or wear and tear.
When the bone that carries the weight of your head misaligns, it forces the rest of the spine into a pattern of compensation. This can have far-reaching effects that fall into several categories:
- Distortion of signals traveling via the nervous system – just as the sciatic nerve can become irritated, any other nerve in your body can suffer the ill effects of reduced function. When the brain can’t communicate with the body optimally, pain and discomfort can be the end result.
- Postural compensations – when the head is not properly centered over the spine, the body is forced to make compensations by altering your posture. Your shoulders might become uneven, one hip might hike up higher than the other resulting in one leg that appears to be shorter than the other. It is easy to see how this can cause muscle spasm on one side versus the other, and how a misalignment in the upper neck can start to cause major issues in the middle and lower back.
- Abnormal movement – when the vertebrae in your spine are not in normal alignment, they are also unable to move properly. The tissues of your spine, including the discs, receive their nutrition and rid themselves of metabolic wastes through normal movement. If an atlas misalignment is causing other areas of your back to move improperly, then it can compromise the health of the discs and lead to compression of the sciatic nerve.
The good news is that upper cervical chiropractic care maintains the goal of identifying the root cause of many health conditions, including sciatica. Our methods are gentle and extremely precise. This is what allows us to accomplish great results without the need for repeated, forceful adjustments to the same area over and over again. By ensuring normal upper cervical alignment, you are eliminating the potential for your body to fall into old patterns of compensation and giving it the chance it needs to heal naturally and safely.
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