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What do toddlers, laundry baskets and 56 cans of cat food have in common? Not sure? How about an untied shoe, an auto accident, work injury and your golf swing? I think you’re getting closer. All are common objects lifted or actions referred to by many of my patients as causes for the same debilitating symptom: Sciatica!

The most common statement made by a patient suffering with sciatica (besides “OUCH!”) is, “I don't want surgery!” New research now allows chiropractors to firmly state what has been known and seen for years: chiropractic helps many patients suffering with sciatica get better without surgery.

Affecting nearly 4 percent of women and about 5 percent of men over the age of 30, sciatica is a set of symptoms that arises from compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve. Comprised of several nerve branches from the lower back and tailbone, the sciatic nerve is our longest and widest nerve and controls the back of the thigh, leg and foot. Patients with sciatic nerve problems often experience pain, numbness, burning, pins and needles and/or loss of normal muscular function. Some walk into the office while others have crawled! The sensations may rest in the buttock region, a single toe, or span the lower extremity.

Sciatica is most commonly caused when a disk separating the bones of the lower back moves out of position or herniates. Picture an ice cream sandwich that is being bitten on one side with the frozen middle squishing out of the other side. The ice cream represents the disk and the cookies would be the bones. Once herniated, the disk can move into the space between the spinal bones where the delicate nerve exits. Symptoms may be localized or may travel to the lower extremities. Other less common causes such as spinal stenosis (narrowing), pelvic muscular problems or tumors may also be considered. (Though, in the hundreds of patients with sciatica I have treated over two decades of practice, I have seen only two or that were caused by a tumor.) If you are also experiencing loss of bladder or bowel control, please seek medical care immediately. Sciatica is serious condition, so if you are suffering from symptoms, get it checked out. It is worth your attention!

Over 250,000 people elect to have back surgery (lumbar microdiskectomy) to remove the portion of the offending tissue. This procedure can provide relief, but due to the risks, experts agree that it should be used as a last resort. With a direct annual cost of approximately $5 billion, or $25,000 per patient, consumers and health insurers would agree that any viable alternative not only makes sense, but can save serious dollars and cents!

A study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics compared chiropractic care to lumbar microdiskectomy surgery. Hearing the results would make any sciatic patient stand up straight – and run straight to the chiropractor.

60 percent of the patients who were considered surgical candidates improved EQUALLY with chiropractic care as those who received surgery.

The research also found that the patients who eventually needed surgery had equal results, even when the surgery was delayed by undergoing chiropractic care first. The study's authors concluded that chiropractic care should be considered as a first line of care for herniated lumbar discs that cause sciatica.

With the effectiveness, low cost and safety of chiropractic, why are so many people still undergoing surgery? A recent study looking at nearly 2,000 state workers from Washington State over a three year period found an answer. It’s not about why or what, but where you go first!

  • 43% of workers who saw a surgeon first got surgery
  • 1.5% of workers with the same condition who saw a chiropractor first got surgery

Modern chiropractic technique provides care that is more comfortable than ever. Besides the decrease in stress and anxiety by avoiding surgery, the cost-savings with chiropractic is substantial. It is believed that if chiropractic is utilized first, it will save nearly three billion dollars each year. Presently, chiropractic is covered by nearly all insurance plans, including Medicare. Although most plans allow the patient to go directly to the doctor of chiropractic without referral, most chiropractors are happy to communicate and coordinate care with your primary care physician.

Next time you swing your driver and feel a sharp pain shoot down your leg, get your child out of the car seat and feel an electrical twinge, or just notice the symptoms slowly creeping their way into your life, rest assured that non-surgical solutions are available. Call the chiropractor and get back to your healthy life again. Research shows that you have nothing to lose by trying it first and everything to gain (except you won't be able to blame your poor golf performance on your sciatica anymore!).

Common Symptoms of sciatica:

  • Pain that often starts in the lower back and radiates into your buttock, thigh and leg
  • Burning or tingling down the leg
  • Buttock or leg pain that is worse when sitting
  • Weakness, numbness and/or difficulty moving the leg or foot
  • Symptoms are typically one-sided
  • Difficulty standing up and/or walking due to shooting pains


J Manip Physiol Ther 33:576 (2010).

Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2013 May 15;38(11):953-64.