Slipped Disc in Back: Common Sciatic Nerve Treatment Falls Short

MRI finds a slipped disc in back. Options are short, but you decide on a common sciatic nerve treatment from your doctor’s suggestion. But what’s the best option?

The task of deciding what options are the best seems daunting. Medications, injections, chiropractic (my personal favorite), acupuncture, massage, physical therapy and probably 10 others I’m forgetting.

But before you decide on a treatment, we need to back up a little. The conversation needs to start with where you got your diagnosis. The diagnosis of a disc problem (slipped disc, disc bulge, disc herniation – the actual description is quite technical, but you get the idea) can be make quite accurately in a competent physician’s office. Rarely is an MRI needed to diagnose a disc problem, and the guidelines clearly state, that in the absence of red flags, any imaging needs to wait until 4 weeks of conservative treatment. Despite this mainstream medicine seems to want to order MRIs and CT scans at the first sign of back problems.

This is were the problems begin. Numerous studies have confirmed that early MRIs are a bad thing, driving expensive, dangerous and unneeded treatments. But let’s say you made the mistake of not going to a chiropractor first for your back pain and you did get an MRI or CT scan. And this MRI or CT shows that you have some type of problem with the intervertebral discs of your lumbar spine.

Here comes the big question. Do you have leg pain or not? And is this leg pain scleratogenous, radicular or radiating? I don’t really expect you to answer that question, but hopefully you can begin to see that just because your back pain is accompanied by leg pain this does NOT mean that you have sciatica. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen patients with leg pain that, after some targeted soft tissue work on his or her low back and glut region (gluteus maximus, posterior hip, rump, derriere–you get the idea), the leg pain gets better or is gone.  There is no way a slipped disc in back would respond that fast.

Sciatica refers to radicular pain that comes from chemical or pressure (from a disc) directly on the sciatic nerve. For those of you unsure of where the sciatic nerve goes, I’ll clarify. It goes into the leg. Despite this, I have seen patients spend tens of thousands of dollars for epidural injections for low back pain that doesn’t involve pain in the leg. I’m not sure there’s ever been an indication to use epidural injections in the lumbar spine for treatment of local back pain (without leg pain). It may be done all the time, but that doesn’t make it right.

Overall, this means that you need to see someone who understands all the nuances of back pain and leg pain. (hint, hint….a chiropractor). Anything short of that and you may get sent in the wrong direction.

Back to this particular article that looked at the effectiveness of epidural steroid injection as a common sciatic nerve treatment.

I have personally referred a small handful of patients out for epidural steroid injections over the years, but they are few and far between. I have never considered spinal injections as a stand alone therapy. At the most, they allow a small window of pain relief, where other options have failed, where other therapies can be used more aggressively.

So what happens if an epidural is the only therapy used? Basically, confirming other studies, these researchers found that they suck. Here are the specifics:

  • Researchers looked at 25 different studies.
  • Epidural corticosteroid injections improved leg pain 6.2 points (out of 100).
  • This was only noted in the short term (2 wks to 3 months).
  • Beyond 3 months, the benefits were even smaller–pretty much non-existent.

So basically, an epidural injection for sciatic pain is very expensive (I’ve seen bills as high as $5,000 per shot) and really does nothing but provide a small amount of pain relief for a short period of time. Worse, it may accelerate destruction of the disc and lead you to surgery. Of course, none of this takes into account the close to 400 cases of fungal meningitis on the East Coast from contaminated vials of the steroid used in this procedure, with almost 30 deaths so far.

Where do I sign up?

James Bogash

For more than a decade, Dr. Bogash has stayed current with the medical literature as it relates to physiology, disease prevention and disease management. He uses his knowledge to educate patients, the community and cyberspace on the best way to avoid and / or manage chronic diseases using lifestyle and targeted supplementation.