Does back pain mean a disc?
Does sciatica, pain down the sciatic nerve, all the way down the leg, mean a lumbar disc is out of position and you need back surgery?
Ninety nine times out of one hundred: No.
No? What? Really? Doesn’t back pain and sciatic pain mean a disc is pressing on the nerve?
Sciatica means that the nerve is annoyed. It is sending pain signals. It can be irritated and inflamed anywhere along the entire path of the nerve. When the nerve is inflammed or there is surrounding inflamation, the nerve sends pain signals.
But… if it is not a disc, WHAT IS IT?
Muscles that are injured, inflamed, irritated, contracted or torn, that in turn put pressure on or inflame the nerve.
The sciatic nerve is made up of multiple nerve roots coming from the spinal cord: L3, L4, L5, S1, S2, S3. And then variants. The nerve roots bundle together and then dive through a group of muscles and go down the back of the leg: deep in the muscles. Why deep? To protect this very big, very important, bundle of nerves. Branches veer off and innervate muscles and bone and tendon and fascia, all the way down to the toes. There is not a spinal column in the leg, to protect this nerve.
It dives in between the superior gemellus and the piriformes muscle, deep in the buttock. Under the gluteus maximus and the gluteus minimus. Then it goes down the leg, under the semitendonosus muscle and the biceps femoris muuscle, the big hamstrings.
Now, let’s go back up to the low back. Why does it hurt? With or without sciatica? There are six layers of muscles in the back, all way smaller than those hamstrings. The top is the latissimus dorsi, down 5 more layers to the small longus and brevis rotares muscles, which connect each vertebral bone and allow subtle and complex movements of the spine.
What happens when a muscle is torn or injured? People look blank in clinic when I ask. I say, “Think of a piece of steak, what happens when you cut it?” They still look blank. “It BLEEDS, right?” When a muscle is torn or injured and bleeds, it and the surrounding muscles cramp up as much as they can, to try to prevent further bleeding and tearing. If it is an extremity, ace wrap, elevate and ice, as soon as possible, to slow the swelling and bleeding and pain. If it is the lower back muscles, ice as soon as possible and applying pressure won’t hurt. No heat for 48 hours since muscle bleeding and swelling and inflammation usually peak at 48 hours. After 48 hours apply heat, then gently stretch, then ice after stretching.
Think of the muscle fibers as torn. They take about 6 to 8 weeks to fully heal. You want to stretch them and rehabilitate them without tearing them in that 6-8 weeks. You want every muscle to be fully functional, to be the right length, to not heal shortened or scarred. Get those fibers working again…
But doctor, my back has been hurting for FIVE YEARS!
Then it will take longer than 6 to 8 weeks to rehabilitate, retrain the muscles, gently break down the scar tissue, get it all functioning. Your muscles are doing their best. They told you they were hurt and you need to listen to them.
Covering it up with ibuprofen or alcohol or any number of substances or trying to ignore what your muscles are trying to tell you is a bit counter productive, don’t you think? Pain is information. An advil can help with the pain, but it does NOT fix the problem. “Drug me so that I can go on ignoring it.”…. uh, no. That is not ethical and it also doesn’t work.
And just think, if those back muscles continue tighter and tighter… they are constricting and pulling on the spinal bones. They pull on those bones and then a disc might be thinned or crushed and might protrude and then press on a nerve. And then for surgery, what do they do to get to the disc? Cut through the six layers of muscle….