Degenerative Disc Disease and Sciatica

Degenerative Discs Disease is one of the most common causes of back pain, and sciatica is one of the most common conditions. Degenerative discs disease, along with sciatica, may cause back pain as well as other debilitating symptoms, such as pain in the butt and thigh, as well as numbness and weakness in the legs. Here are some quick facts about degenerative disc disease and sciatica:
  • The spinal discs (intervertebral discs) are located between the spinal bone and provide a cushion between the bones.
  • The discs are designed somewhat like a donut, with a soft gel like inner layer, and tough but still malleable outer layer.
  • The discs are prone to taking on a more flatlike shape when we put weight on our spine, such as when we are standing and walking upright. The discs then reinflate themselves and take on more water when we are sleeping and lying down. Though the discs have the ability of changing their shape to some extend, depending on the load applied to it, it's fundamental form is still retained when our back structures are healthy.
  • Deterioration (degeneration) of the disc can lead to localized or radiating pain.
  • If these is a deterioration of the discs, they may bulge on one side of the spine and press on one of the nerve roots that supply sensation to the legs and lower back.
  • Sciatica can result from disc herniation when these nerves are herniated.
  • Sciatica is pain that may be felt in the lower back, or pain that travels along the sciatic nerve to the buttocks, thigh, calf, and foot. This pain may include some loss of sensation and ability to control our skeletal muscles, or it may be more severe, leading to serious weakness and loss of feeling.

What treatments have been effective for degenerative disc disease and sciatica?
Unless the patient experience a total loss of function in the leg or foot, or their ability to control their ability to urinate and control of their bowel movements, they will be able to recover from a ruptured or herniated disc without surgery. The symptoms may gradually subside with relaxation at home. In rare cases, patients are unable to function out of bed and they may be confined to the bed for several days or more. Traction - a technique that involves the immobilization of the back to facilitate the healing process, was once common but has fallen out of favor as a treatment option.

While patients are generally not discouraged from participating in activities while recovering from herniated discs, some activities that may aggravate the discs should be avoided. Some activities that put added stresses on the spine include excessive bending or straining and lifting heavy objects.

If the patient's sleeping environment and bed are suspected of aggravating the back condition, the patient should consider changing their sleeping position or ordering a new bed. A firm, supportive mattress is helpful for sleeping with the right posture. A pillow under the knees may help people who sleep on their back. For people who are side sleepers, a pillow under the shoulder and under the waist may promote a healthy spine alignment when sleeping.