- Diseases, Disorders & Conditions
A personal experience of Sciatica
A personal experience of Sciatica
I feel that the time is right to write about my experience of back pain and Sciatica. It has been over a year ago since I was first diagnosed with this (in my experience) debilitating condition. Before I discuss my personal experience of this condition I will briefly outline what Sciatica is.
Sciatica is not a disease, rather a symptom. Normally pain is felt in the buttock or leg, however it can also occur in the arms. It is known as referred pain, in that the source or reason for the pain being felt for instance in the ankle, could be in the lower back, yet pain is not felt there. The reason for the referred pain is because the Sciatic nerve is being pinched, irritated or crushed somewhere along its course down the spinal column from the base of the neck down into the foot and toes.
The Sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body in that it runs all the way down the body and it measures approximately the width of the average little finger. It goes down both legs, so if you are really infortunate you could be a sufferer of sciatica in both legs. It can be caused by Spinal Stenosis (narrowing of the spinal column, usually in people aged 50 and above), piriformis syndrome which is where the muscle in the buttock (buttock/hip region) gets too tight, sometimes Ankylosing Spondylothesis (where the bone fragments caused bone granules to rub and cause inflamation) and most commonly, so called slipped disk. The disk has not slipped, rather it is bulging or herniated or prolapsed, depending on how severely the disk has been damaged. There are other causes of Sciatica, such as chemical irritation of the Sciatic nerve caused perhaps by the damaged area releasing chemicals to tell the body of the injury which is turn irritates the nerve. My version of Sciatica was to turn out to be a very large disk bulge.
My story of back pain probably began when I was about eight years old giving piggyback rides to everyone in my class. Then I used to go ice skating twice weekly, however I used to lean forward in an awkward way. It was at this time, aged about twelve that I would sometimes get a stiff back. My great gran was always said to have suffered bouts of back pain, so maybe there is a genetic propensity towards back trouble, although I don't know if this is verified scientifically. When I was twenty I suffered my first really bad back ache. I don't know what I had done, maybe it was the heavy duty gardening a few days before, however I suddenly couldn't stand up straight and hobbled around like an old woman for the rest of the week. What I did not realise was that I had probably suffered from a small disk bulge. Small disk bulges are pretty common and many people have them knowingly or unknowingly. Sometimes they cause symptoms such as I suffered, sometimes they cause no symptoms. I think it mainly depends on where the disk decides to bulge as to what is or is not felt.
Fast forward to the beginning of January last year after a number of rather trouble free years. I had a small three month old baby and a three year old. I had been carrying my baby in a sling which was carried on my front. I think that I had not adjusted the sling properly and it seemed rather low down on my body, however I had not suffered any problems until we went for a particularly long country walk. Later that evening I just could not get comfortable when sat down. This feeling grew, until it made me feel ill, almost as thought I was getting flu. I went to the doctor, who prescribed me anti inflamatories. I took them for a few days, then things seemed to settle down. For the next few months, this episode seemed to fade. I had a nice summer and then started to look forward to my two daughters' birthdays in October.
My youngest daughter was one year old on 6th October 2008. That was the day that my back pain came back with a vengeance. I had carried her around a homeware shop and also carried too much shopping in a basket at the same time. I felt nothing bad to begin with. Later in the evening the familiar can't get comfortable feeling kicked in. I went to bed thinking that it would be better in the morning. The morning came. I could just about get out of bed. Then I started to experience the most incredible back muscle spasms which made my spine lock. This had happened a few times earlier in the year, but this time was different. I would find myself sliding of the couch onto the floor face down in order to deal with the pain of having my spine lock. My two girls just jumped over me and carried on playing. After about a week and a half things started to settle. I thought it would clear off just as it seemed to have done in January. What I did not realise was that these two episodes were serious warnings for me to start looking after my back. I did not pay attention. I immediately started doing Pilates and using the giant bouncy ball for exercises. Nothing wrong with Pilates, however it should not be done rigorously so soon after damaging your back. Three days after starting the exercises I was walking my older daughter to pre-school. I had walked less than quarter of a mile when there was a burning shooting pain into my buttock/hip area. I carried on walking/limping thinking it would go away. Finally it did. Thought no more of it for the rest of the day. The next day it was back but with a difference. I could no longer stand up straight. My spine veered off to the right sideways. I couldn't straighten it at all. I later learnt that this is called Sciatic Scholiosis (curvature of the spine caused by the compression of the Sciatic nerve). I could not walk properly, or very far. I tried on a few occasions to walk my older daughter to school, but the whole thing took me hours to walk a mile and it was excruciating.
I was referred for physiotherapy by my doctor. I did McKenzie extension exercises which involved me lying on the floor face down and then pushing the top half of my body up to make my disk bulge get pushed back in. That was the theory at least. Instead, the pain (agony) intensified, I think the exercises had actually made the bulge bigger. If you image gettting a ballon that is partially inflated and squeezing one side, the other side bulges. I think this same thing happended to my disk. I started to get extreme muscle spasms and even when lying down was in agony. Nothing seemed to relieve me of the pain. I did not sleep for months. The only thing that was reasonably decent was being put on diazepam to relax my back muscles. By 23rd December I had my MRI. The results came back a few day later. I had two very large disk bulges at S1/L5 and L4/L5. The two most common disks to go. It could be worse, some people have more than three disks go. The problem with having more than one disk crushing the Sciatic nerve is that there are more areas of referred pain. By now I had pain all the way down to my foot, especially in my shin. It felt like I had been kicked really hard in the shin. I had been on Co-codemal, Diazepam, Paracetamol, Ibuprofen and Amytriptylin. The Amytriptylin is an anti depressant that is also used to treat nerve pain. It literally made me lose the will to live and gave me an enormous panick attack. I had to call an ambulance. I stopped the Amytriptylin. The next drug was Tramadol. My doctor prescribed these (top strength) just before Christmas. I was out of it, however these pain killers lived up to their name. I combined these with 400 ml of Ibuprofin alternating the two throughout the days. I got relatives to look after the girls and just lay back on the sofa eating a mixture of Diazepam, Tramadol and Ibuprofin. My doctor had given up hope and explained the operation that I would need to have - a micro discectomy. I had a neurosurgeon appointment booked at the beginning of February. After 16 weeks of agony, the pain seemed to turn a corner. I started walking again after weeks in the house. I couldn't get far to begin with and I made sure that I listened to what my body was telling me. By the time I saw my neurosurgeon I was about 90% better. He gave me some advice and referred me for more physio. I had to wait months for this. By August I was in physiotherapy this time. I was skeptical. My physio created a programme of exercises based on strengthening my back and stretching the muscles. He said that I had over protected my back since the Sciatica began and to avoid further problems I needed to make it flexible again. I followed his exercises. My back feels so much better.
I would say that I am about 97% better. I can feel things improving still. I have been told that an injuried spine and Sciatic nerve can take years to get better. This is a long term condition. There will be no more rollercoaster rides etc. To be honest, I feel that I have a different outlook on life now and try to appreciate every largely pain free day I have. Hopefully this will continue.
If you have any back problem you need to consult your doctor first.
Do not shirk the drugs that are prescribed. See them as a means to an end. They help you to sleep. This is the time when your body is going to heal.
Don't try to rush things, you could exacerbate things. Your body needs to do things in its own time. Relax.
Listen to your body and work with it. If doing exercises gives you lots of pain, stop. Work within a comfortable pain threshold, any more is a warning you are doing too much.
Some people say Osteopaths and Chiropodists are good, however don't expect to be instantly cured. People say they are miraculously cured but I bet there're not. I had Osteopathic treatment and it was very good at getting some of my muscle spasms to relax, however time seems to have been the ultimate healer.
Don't jump into an operation too early. At first I was literally begging for an operation, however the NHS does not rush anything. My condition turned the corner after sixteen weeks. Many doctors say that if the Sciatica is not better by twelve weeks it is not going to be better. I think this is a bit too black and white, as my story shows. If you need an operation however, go for it and look forward to living life again.
Physiotherapy is a good thing at the right time. If you are in acute pain it may do more harm than good. My first physio sessions at the beginning of my condition caused it to get worse. The later physio sessions have been a God send and made me feel like a normal person again.
TENS machines may give some pain relief. I found it gave some relief to begin with, however after a while it did nothing.
My mother has had Cortisone injections because she too had a spine problem (different to mine). She says that it is very effective for a few months after. Other people do not feel the effects. If your pain is really bad it may be worth investigating. Some studies have found that although the Cortisone does not cure the problem, it can give you enough breathing space for it to start to get better. Some people say that Cortisone is a poison and should be avoided altogether. My view is that when you feel the intense level of pain (and I've had two children naturally) that Sciatica presents, you really don't care that much about the ins and outs of Cortisone and other drugs.
Do what is right for you. You don't have to be a hero/martyr. Get through the ordeal best you can and learn from it.