As many as 40% of American adults may have a run-in with sciatic nerve pain. The group of symptoms collectively called sciatica results from irritation of the largest nerve in the body. Any condition that reduces the size of the spinal spaces where the sciatic nerve passes through can irritate the nerve.
This narrowing is called spinal stenosis, and it most often affects the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) regions of the spine. Sciatic nerve pain can result from lumbar stenosis, medically known as lumbar radiculopathy. Stenosis doesn’t always cause symptoms; you can naturally recover from some of its causes. However, sciatic nerve pain can also be a chronic condition that requires surgical intervention.
Our neurosurgeons here at Atlas Neurosurgery and Spine Center can diagnose the distinctive symptoms of sciatica and determine if spinal stenosis is the cause. We can manage your pain through natural recovery and recommend treatments for more complex conditions.
The scope of stenosis
The word “stenosis” describes narrowing, and spinal stenosis refers to narrowed nerve pathways. The spinal cord is the central collecting point for nerves that branch off to all parts of your body. Since it’s protected inside the bones of the spinal column, it requires spaces so the nerve roots can pass through. Any reduction of these spaces constitutes spinal stenosis. Common reasons for stenosis include:
- Herniated discs: where disc tissue contacts or compresses nerve tissue
- Arthritis and other conditions causing bone spurs that project into nerve passageways
- Spinal injuries: damage to vertebrae may affect spinal openings
- Osteoporosis: which could lead to compression fractures that change the shape of vertebrae
- Thickened ligaments: spinal ligaments become larger and stiffer over time
- Tumors: in rare cases, spinal tumors may interfere with nerve passageways
Some people have naturally small nerve passages that contribute to stenosis resulting in nerve compression. Not all stenosis cases produce symptoms.
The lumbar spine
The five vertebrae of the lumbar spine in your lower back are the most likely to suffer from stenosis. This is also where the sciatic nerves branch off the spinal cord on the left and right sides, merging into a larger nerve trunk that runs down each leg.
Because of the complexity of the nerve, there is a range of potential symptoms at the location where stenosis affects the nerve tissue, and anywhere along the sciatic nerve’s length after the point of compression. This produces the characteristic sciatica symptoms: including pain, tingling, numbness, and muscle weakness. Your precise symptoms depend on which branches of the sciatic nerve your stenosis affects.
Stenosis can affect more than one sciatic nerve branch, causing more complex symptoms. In most cases, though, you’ll have sciatic pain on only one side.
When rest and home care fail to produce sufficient relief, contact Atlas Neurosurgery and Spine Center for an exam and consultation. You can book appointments online or by phone. We have treatments for unresolved sciatic nerve pain, so schedule your visit today.