One day, you’re a strong, active person in good shape and good health. Then, just like that, you’re completely down for the count due to disabling pain shooting from your lower back, down your leg, and into your ankle and foot. The culprit? Sciatica.
Each year, 1-2 percent of all people experience sciatica, or pain, numbness, and weakness that radiates down the leg due to compression of the sciatic nerve. Sciatica symptoms can come on suddenly and quickly get in the way of your day-to-day activities—not to mention cause you severe pain and discomfort.
How do you know when it’s the right time to see a doctor to prevent potential long-term complications and provide relief from sciatica pain? We’ll break it down for you.
The Relationship Between Time to Treatment and Outcomes
Although most sciatica cases resolve naturally over time, there’s something to be said for not waiting too long to seek treatment. In fact, on top of causing painful symptoms and discomfort, in sciatica cases caused by a severe underlying condition, waiting too long to be treated can result in permanent or long-lasting complications.
One study1 found that outcomes were significantly worse in sciatica/lumbar herniated disc patients who waited for more than six months prior to treatment. Additionally, past studies2 have also shown that leg pain lasting more than eight months correlates with unfavorable postoperative outcomes for lumbar herniated disc patients.
That’s not all. Addressing sciatica symptoms early on has a positive impact on not only surgical outcomes, but also on conservative treatment results. New research3 also reveals better conservative treatment success when patients receive an early referral from a primary care physician to physical therapy for sciatic pain relief.
Some symptoms need attention even sooner. The so-called “cauda equina syndrome” calls for urgent consultation of a physician. This syndrome occurs when multiple nerve roots are compressed and may result in incontinence, weakness of the legs and numbness in the buttock.
4 Signs to See a Doctor for Sciatica Pain Relief
In order to proactively address your sciatica symptoms, you need to be aware of the common signs that it may be time to see a doctor for pain relief.
1. Your symptoms are very severe.
If you’re experiencing severe sciatica symptoms, it’s likely the right time to seek medical help for diagnosis and treatment. Wondering how you can tell the difference between mild and severe symptoms? Mild discomfort running down the leg (along the sciatic nerve) and into the foot is a common sciatica symptom.
Examples of more severe symptoms (that likely require medical care for relief) include:
- Sudden, severe pain and/or weakness down your leg
- Unexplained loss of bladder and/or bowel functions
- Difficulty lifting your foot (foot drop), numbness, or weakness
- Significant trouble with walking and normal daily activities
- Complete loss of balance and/or fine motor skills
Should you experience any of these symptoms, you should make an appointment with your doctor. They will be able to assess your condition and refer you to a spine specialist and/or a physical therapist as necessary.
2. Symptoms have persisted more than a few weeks.
Mild cases of sciatica typically resolve themselves naturally over time. For roughly 3 out of 4 people4, sciatica symptoms, show improvement over the course of a few weeks. However, if your symptoms are persistent and last longer —or if they get progressively worse over time—it’s probably time to see a doctor to explore your treatment options.
Acute sciatica has the potential to eventually turn into chronic sciatica if it’s not addressed in a reasonable period of time. If you’re suffering from sciatica symptoms for more than a few weeks, there’s a good chance you won’t achieve pain relief without conservative treatments or surgery.
3. Your sciatica follows trauma or injury.
While the majority of sciatica cases (90 percent5) are the result of a lumbar herniated disc, some people develop symptoms following an accident or traumatic event. It is not known whether the trauma caused the disc herniation itself or if symptoms occur after an asymptomatic condition became symptomatic. If your sciatica begins after an accident or injury, you should proactively seek medical treatment to determine the cause and best treatment approach.
This is also true for injured athletes who experience sciatica from a lumbar herniated disc. Lumbar disc herniation can result from partaking in any one of a number of sports and high-impact activities, such as weight lifting, gymnastics, and collision sports like football, hockey, and lacrosse. In addition to learning ways to best prevent lumbar disc injuries—like using proper lifting techniques and wearing the right shoes and protective gear—athletes should make it a point to seek a medical opinion when injuries do occur.
4. You’ve exhausted your other options.
If you’ve tried more conservative treatments at home with no success, you should see a doctor to learn about the other options available to you. Some examples of effective conservative (or “self-care”) treatments you can explore at home include:
- Over-the-counter pain medications
- Gentle exercises and stretching
- Ice and heat therapy
- Relaxation techniques
- Improving posture/habits
That being said, if you try different options for at-home sciatica pain relief and see little to no success, do not prolong your condition by putting off seeking medical treatment. Instead, take the next step and decrease your risk of an unfavorable treatment outcome by turning it over to a medical professional sooner rather than later.
Getting the Most Out of Your Doctor’s Appointment
To get the most out of your doctor’s appointment, consider making a list of questions to ask regarding your condition and treatment. It’s also helpful to keep a pain diary that tracks the symptoms you’re experiencing, as well as their frequency and severity. This way, your physician will be equipped with an accurate log of your symptoms and how they’ve played out over time.
To evaluate and diagnose the condition causing your sciatica—which could be lumbar disc herniation, piriformis syndrome, lumbar spinal stenosis, sacroiliac joint dysfunction, or spondylolisthesis—your doctor will perform a physical examination, review your medical history, and likely complete medical imaging tests.
If your doctor recommends surgery for a lumbar herniated disc, such as a lumbar discectomy, you may want to inquire about new innovations that may improve your surgical results, such as the Barricaid device. Also, make sure you do your research and choose a spine surgeon with the right expertise and qualifications, should you need to pursue surgery for sciatica pain relief.
By taking proactive steps to manage and treat your sciatica symptoms, you can put yourself on the road to recovery and get back to living your life, free of pain.
While this blog is meant to provide you with information you need to make an informed decision about your treatment options, it is not intended to replace professional medical care or provide medical advice. If you have any questions about the Barricaid, please call or see your doctor, who is the only one qualified to diagnose and treat your spinal condition. As with any surgical procedure, you should select a doctor who is experienced in performing the specific surgery that you are considering.
If you have any questions about Barricaid, you may ask your doctor. For additional information, please visit www.barricaid.com. For complete risk-benefit information: www.barricaid.com/instructions-for-use.
1 Jeffrey A. Rihn et al, “Duration of Symptoms Resulting from Lumbar Disc Herniation: Effect on Treatment Outcomes,” J Bone Joint Surg Am 93, no. 20 (2019): 1906-1914, doi: 10.2106/JBJS.J.00878.
2 Øystein P. Nygaard et al, “Duration of leg pain as a predictor of outcome after surgery for lumbar disc herniation: A prospective cohort study with 1-year follow up,” The Journal of Neurosurgery 92, no. 2 (2000): 131-134, doi: 10.3171/spi.2000.92.2.0131.
3 Julie M. Fritz et al, “Physical Therapy Referral From Primary Care for Acute Back Pain With Sciatica: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Ann Intern Med. (2020), doi: 10.7326/M20-4187.
4 Steven J. Atlas, “Taming the pain of sciatica: For most people, time heals and less is more,” Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, Updated October 22, 2019, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/taming-pain-sciatica-people-time-heals-less-2017071212048.
5 Anfeng Xiang et al, “Immediate relief of herniated lumbar disc-related sciatica by ankle acupuncture: A study protocol for a randomized controlled clinical trial,” Medicine 96, no. 51 (2017): E9191, doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000009191.