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Surgery May Be the Fastest Route to Lasting Pain Relief for Sciatica Sufferers


Sciatica is a pain that originates along your sciatic nerve, which extends from the back of your pelvis down the back of your thigh.

Noninvasive and nonsurgical techniques sometimes work to alleviate the pain associated with sciatica. However, for some patients it can feel like there’s no relief from the leg cramps, shooting pains, or electrical jolts they feel running down the back of their legs.

When medications, exercise, acupuncture and other medical and non-medical therapies don’t work, it may not be in your best interest to wait and suffer needlessly. Recent research shows that pursuing surgery earlier than once thought can provide long-term pain relief sooner.

Herniated Discs: The Most Common Cause of Sciatica

A spinal disc is a structure located between the vertebrae in your spine. It’s shaped like a donut with a hard exterior and a soft, jelly-like interior. It acts like a shock absorber to keep your flexible and healthy.

However, as people age, these spinal discs become less flexible and more prone to injury. When a spinal disc injury happens, the soft interior part of the spinal disc leaks out and can irritate nearby nerves. This leads to the pain and suffering associated with sciatica.

To determine if you are suffering from sciatica, your doctor will perform a physical exam. The most common test for sciatica is a straight-leg test. You will lie on your back with your legs straight, and slowly raise each leg. Your doctor will note where the pain begins to help pinpoint the nerves that are affected.

Why Surgery May Be a Good Option

Deciding to have surgery is never an easy decision. All surgeries have inherent risks for complications, which is why pursuing a noninvasive approach is typically the first option recommended by doctors. However, a recent study shows that waiting for sciatica surgery may not help.

Researchers worked with a group of sciatica sufferers to see if there was a difference in pain relief among those who pursued surgery or another therapy. They split patients with herniated discs into two groups. The first group had surgery within two weeks of the beginning of the study. The other group was assigned a more conservative, nonsurgical treatment. This second group had the option to pursue surgery later.

Among the people in the nonsurgical group, 40 percent reported they did not experience any pain relief from their treatment and eventually decided to pursue surgery. The people who did get surgery experienced pain relief about 16 weeks sooner than the nonsurgical group. For these people, surgery was the fastest way to relieve their sciatica pain.

The More Conservative Approach

Deciding to pursue a more conservative approach to sciatica treatment does not prevent you from having surgery at a later date, just like the second group of people in the study. If you decide to try a more conservative approach first, you can expect a combination of the following therapies:

  • Medication to relieve pain, such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve)
  • Physical therapy to improve flexibility and strength
  • Spinal injections of medications to reduce inflammation

It’s best to talk to your doctor or a surgeon about what approach is the best fit for your specific condition and treatment goals.

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