Sciatica is a common condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It occurs when the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back to the legs, is irritated or compressed by a herniated disc, spinal stenosis, piriformis syndrome, or another cause. Sciatica can cause pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness in the lower back, buttocks, and legs. But can sciatica be so bad you cannot walk?
The answer is yes, in some cases. Sciatica can affect mobility and quality of life in different ways, depending on the severity and location of the nerve compression. This article explains how sciatica can impair your walking ability, the risk factors and complications of severe sciatica, and what you can do to prevent and treat it.
How Sciatica Can Impair Your Walking Ability
Sciatica can make walking difficult or impossible for several reasons:
- Pain – Sciatica can cause intense pain that radiates from the lower back to the leg, sometimes reaching the foot. The pain can be sharp, burning, or throbbing, and it can worsen with movement, coughing, sneezing, or sitting. The pain can be so severe that it prevents you from walking normally or at all, particularly in the last stages of sciatica.
- Numbness – Sciatica can also cause numbness or loss of sensation in the affected leg or foot. This can make you feel like your leg is asleep or heavy, and it can affect your balance and coordination. You may have difficulty feeling the ground or moving your toes.
- Weakness – Sciatica can cause weakness or muscle fatigue in the affected leg or foot. This can make you feel like your leg is giving out or buckling under your weight. You may have difficulty standing up, walking up stairs, or lifting your foot.
- Foot drop – In some cases, sciatica can cause foot drop, which is a condition where you cannot lift the front part of your foot. This could make you drag your toes on the ground or trip over them. You may need to wear a brace or use a cane to walk.
Risk Factors and Complications of Severe Sciatica
Some factors that can increase your risk of developing severe sciatica that affects your walking ability are:
- Age – Sciatica is more common in older adults, as they are more likely to have degenerative changes in their spines that can compress their sciatic nerves.
- Obesity – Being overweight or obese can put extra pressure on your spine and discs, which can lead to sciatica.
- Occupation – Having a job that involves lifting heavy objects, twisting your spine, driving for long periods, or sitting with poor posture can increase your risk of sciatica.
- Diabetes – Having diabetes can damage your nerves and make them more susceptible to compression and inflammation.
- Smoking – Smoking can impair your blood circulation and reduce the oxygen supply to your nerves and discs, which can worsen sciatica.
Severe sciatica that impairs your walking ability can have serious complications if left untreated, such as:
- Permanent nerve damage – If the sciatic nerve is compressed for too long, it can lose its function and cause permanent numbness, weakness, or paralysis in the affected leg or foot.
- Cauda equina syndrome – This is a rare but life-threatening condition where the nerve roots at the end of the spinal cord are compressed by a large disc herniation or tumor. It can cause severe low back pain, numbness, weakness, and loss of bladder and bowel control. It requires immediate medical attention and surgery to prevent permanent damage.
- Psychological distress – Having severe sciatica that affects your mobility and quality of life can cause depression, anxiety, stress, and isolation. It can also affect your sleep quality and appetite.
How to Prevent and Treat Severe Sciatica
The good news is that most cases of sciatica resolve within a few weeks with conservative treatments, such as:
- Rest – Avoid activities that aggravate your pain, and rest your back for a few days. However, do not stay in bed for too long, as this can weaken your muscles and slow down your recovery.
- Ice and heat – Apply ice packs to the painful area for 15 minutes several times a day for the first few days. Then switch to heat pads or warm baths to relax your muscles and increase blood flow.
- Medications – Take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen or naproxen to reduce pain and inflammation. You may also need prescription medications such as muscle relaxants, steroids, opioids, or nerve pain drugs if your pain is severe or chronic.
- Physical therapy – A physical therapist can teach you exercises to stretch and strengthen your back and leg muscles, improve your posture and flexibility, and relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve.
- Alternative therapies – Some people find relief from sciatica with alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage, chiropractic, yoga, or spinal decompression.
If conservative treatments do not work or your sciatica is severe, you may need surgery to remove the source of nerve compression. The type of surgery depends on the cause and location of your sciatica, but it may involve:
- Microdiscectomy – This is a minimally invasive procedure where a small incision is made in your back and a part of the herniated disc that is pressing on the sciatic nerve is removed.
- Laminectomy – This is a procedure where a part of the lamina, which is the bony arch that covers the spinal canal, is removed to create more space for the nerve roots.
- Foraminotomy – This is a procedure where a part of the foramen, which is the opening where the nerve exits the spine, is enlarged to relieve pressure on the nerve.
- Fusion – This is a procedure where two or more vertebrae are joined together with screws, rods, or bone grafts to stabilize the spine and prevent further nerve compression.
Surgery can provide immediate relief from sciatica, but it also has risks and complications such as infection, bleeding, nerve damage, or failed back surgery syndrome. Therefore, surgery should only be considered as a last resort when all other options have failed.
Patients who have had discectomies or less invasive microdiscectomies for herniated discs may experience sciatica if their discs reherniate, which often occurs if there is a large hole in the outer ring of the disc after surgery. Fortunately, there is a new treatment shown to reduce the risk of reherniation by closing the hole in the disc after a discectomy. This treatment is done immediately following the discectomy—during the same operation—and does not require any additional incisions or time in the hospital. Barricaid was proven 95 percent effective in a study of over 500 patients, meaning 95 percent of patients did not experience a reoperation due to reherniation in the two-year study time frame.
To learn more about the Barricaid treatment, ask your doctor or contact us at 844-288-7474.
For full benefit/risk information, please visit: https://www.barricaid.com/instructions.