Sciatica vs. Herniated Disc: What Are the Differences?

A close-up of a spine with a herniated disc.

Sciatica and herniated discs are two common sources of bodily pain that can significantly hinder your ability to enjoy various activities. Although these two conditions can have very different complications, they both are inextricably linked to your spinal alignment and posture. In fact, a herniated disc can actually cause or contribute to sciatica. 

Thankfully, some experts have the tools and skills to relieve the pain associated with both. Below, we compare sciatica vs. herniated discs and discuss the benefits of chiropractic care for relieving pain and preventing these conditions from occurring in the first place.

What is Sciatica?

Sciatica is a condition that affects the longest and thickest nerve in the entire body, known as the sciatic nerve. This nerve has nerve endings that are rooted in the pelvis and extend through the entirety of the legs and feet while branching outwards.

The sciatic nerve is pivotal to locomotion, as it provides feeling in your legs, rear thighs, and the bottoms of your feet while also providing mobility to your lower legs and the backs of your knees. Because the nerve is rooted in the lower area of the spine and where the spine connects to the pelvis, it is under a lot of pressure. When exposed to excess pressure, the sciatic nerve can become irritated or inflamed; as a result, various signals are sent down the path of the nerve that can cause:

  • Shooting, burning, or radiating pain down the length of the nerve.
  • Numbness of the sensations of “pins and needles” in various portions of the nerve.
  • Weakness in the feet and legs.
  • General discomfort in the legs.
  • Pain when bending forward, backward, or twisting. 

Depending on how the sciatic nerve is inflicted, you can expect to experience a variety of these symptoms in either leg. For example, one leg could be perfectly fine while the other experiences symptoms. Furthermore, one leg may experience the sensation of “pins and needles” while weakness can be felt in both feet.

A graphic showing how sciatica can be caused by a herniated disc.

What is a Herniated Disc?

Your spine is made up of multiple segments of vertebrae that are connected via facet joints. These joints fit together like jigsaw pieces and allow the spine the range of motion that it needs. However, if there were no cushioning between these bones, it would be extremely difficult and painful to move. For this reason, in between every vertebra is a rubbery disc filled with semi-gelatinous fluid that acts as cushioning, keeping the disparate portions of the spine from rubbing together. These discs, which also provide shock absorption, are contained inside a tough, fibrous membrane and are held in place by ligaments that protect the vertebrae and surrounding tissue.

Trauma can cause tears or fissures to develop in the inner fibers, which can result in the fluid from these discs pushing outwards and cause varying degrees of pain and symptoms, such as:

  • Pain on one side of the body/back
  • Tingling or numbness in the legs or feet
  • Sharp pain in one part of the leg, hips, or buttocks
  • Pain when moving 

So, what are the differences between sciatica vs. herniated discs since they both can affect the legs and feet? Herniated discs, particularly those that occur in the lumbar spine (lower back), cause uneven pressure on various parts of the spinal cord; this pressure can also affect the sciatic nerve and cause or contribute to sciatica. 

Anyone can experience a herniated disc if the spine is exposed to trauma that tears the fibers containing the discs. However, certain factors, such as those detailed in the table below, increase the risk of herniated discs.

Risk Factors for Herniated Discs
Spinal Misalignment Your spine has an ideal, natural curvature that allows it to perform optimally. When there are alignment or postural issues that can cause the spine to be misaligned, more pressure can be placed on the discs than they are equipped to bear.
Weight The discs in our spine are under pressure, and excess body weight increases the stress on these discs, especially those in the lower back.
Occupation If you’re involved in a physically demanding job that involves repetitive movements, lifting, pushing, or bending, you will be at a higher risk of a herniated disc.
Lifestyle Factors Sedentary lifestyles that involve lots of sitting, lying down, and a lack of exercise can cause excess pressure to be applied to the joints in the spine for extended periods.
Genetics Some people may be genetically predisposed to herniated discs.
Aging As we age, our bodies become weaker. This can be exacerbated by pressure from things like poor posture.
Trauma Traumatic events can instantly cause tears in the fibers of the disc.

There are varying degrees of severity for herniated discs. The severity will correlate to the intensity of symptoms as well as to treatments and recovery time. 

  • Bulge: This is the mildest form of a herniated disc. A small bulge extends out of the tear and can potentially retract if the excess pressure is taken off of the disc.
  • Herniation: While slightly more herniated than a bulge, it can still retract when excess pressure is removed.
  • Protrusion: The fluid in the disc is only held back by a few annular fibers and protrudes quite a bit from the disc. It may be able to retract but with much more difficulty than bulges or herniations.
  • Extrusion: Extrusions occur when the fibers that hold the fluid in are torn completely. This results in the fluid being pushed completely out of the sac and floating freely in the spine. This is extremely painful and will likely require surgery.
  • Sequestery: This is the most severe disc complication that occurs when the free-flowing fluid from the protrusion has broken up into bits of jelly. This also requires surgery. 

Luckily, chiropractic care has solutions for both conditions that can alleviate pain while also providing more long-term prevention of recurring symptoms.

Chiropractic Treatment of Sciatica vs. Herniated Discs

While many short-term treatments can provide relief for pain, many will fail to effectively prevent symptoms of sciatica and herniated discs from returning.

For sciatica, milder symptoms may resolve on their own and can be treated with:

  • Bed rest
  • Heat application
  • Pain-relieving medications
  • Light stretches

However, more severe cases that pester you for longer than a few weeks will require more in-depth treatment such as chiropractic care. Some effective chiropractic care treatment options that can relieve and prevent sciatica include:

Chiropractic Treatments for Sciatica
Chiropractic Adjustments Chiropractic adjustments can improve mobility and decrease sciatic nerve discomfort in the lower back. Because muscle strain compresses the nerve and causes irritation and inflammation, adjustments can reduce sciatica.
Muscle Therapy Myofascial release and other muscle manipulation techniques can assist the muscles around the sciatic nerve relax, which can help with symptoms.
Pelvic Realignment Restoring the natural alignment of the pelvis reduces sciatic pain referral by minimizing stress and strain into the sacrum where the sciatic nerve exits.

For herniated discs, while the tears in the fibers will never heal completely, relieving the compression on the discs can not only relieve you of severe pain and restore your range of motion but can potentially cause the fluid to retract back within the disc if the herniated discs are a bulge, herniation, or an extrusion. Chiropractic care may also prevent herniation from recurring.

Chiropractic care techniques that can treat herniated discs include the following:

Chiropractic Treatments for Herniated Discs
Spinal Decompression By gently and slightly stretching the spine, pressure is removed from the spinal discs, allowing the fluid to potentially retract while also taking pressure off of the nerves in the spine. This also promotes the flow of water, oxygen, and nutrients into the discs to promote healing.
Cox Flexion Lying face down on a Cox flexion table stabilizes the vertebrae in the spine and lowers the pressure on the spine to help the herniations retract.
Spinal Realignment Restoring the alignment of the spine will naturally relieve the pressure placed upon the discs throughout your daily life.

While chiropractic care can provide an effective long-term solution for both sciatica and herniated discs, the most important part of ensuring that you don’t suffer from either in the future is by addressing the cause of sciatica or herniated discs at the source. 

PostureWorks Provides Enhanced Chiropractic Care 

Without knowing and addressing the true cause of your sciatic pain or herniated discs, you may have to suffer through them again in the future if symptoms reappear. That’s why at PostureWorks, we use Chiropractic BioPhysics® to not only evaluate your entire medical history but assess your unique spinal curvature to isolate the cause of your symptoms.

With this information, we craft a customized, non-invasive treatment plan that uses a mixture of chiropractic treatment options such as postural exercises, spinal traction, chiropractic adjustment, and neuromuscular reeducation, tuned to your unique needs. This treatment plan will relieve your pain and symptoms while allowing you to maintain proper spinal alignment, essentially preventing the build-up of excess pressure that causes sciatica and herniated discs.

Contact us today for more information on sciatica vs. herniated discs or to schedule your appointment with PostureWorks.

Chiropractic BioPhysics®, or CBP, is a deeply researched and results-oriented corrective care technique. CBP-trained chiropractors aim to realign the spine to health and optimal function. As with all chiropractic care, CBP is conservative, painless, and non-invasive.

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