How do doctors diagnose sciatica?

If symptoms you believe to be sciatica-related are affecting your life, it is important to see a qualified medical professional for an accurate diagnosis. While a sciatica diagnosis doesn’t equal immediate relief from lower back pain or leg pain, it does mean you can begin to develop a treatment plan that can help you get back to normal activity. Many people diagnosed with sciatica are able to find relief from their discomfort through nonsurgical means. However, for other patients, surgical treatment might eventually follow a sciatica diagnosis if more conservative therapies aren’t effective after being fully attempted.

Overview of sciatica

Sciatica is a set of symptoms that can result from compression of the sciatic nerve, including shooting pains into the hips and buttocks, weakness in the legs and a pins-and-needles sensation in the toes. In order to make a sciatica diagnosis, a doctor must determine the underlying condition that is causing the compression of the sciatic nerve. Many of the spinal conditions that affect the lumbar (lower) region of the spine are age-related disorders. Examples of conditions that can lead to sciatica include bulging discs, herniated discs, bone spurs and spondylolisthesis. The similar symptoms caused by these and other spine conditions can make sciatica very difficult to diagnose.

Diagnostic techniques

To conclusively identify the underlying cause of sciatica pain, most doctors will take the following steps:

  • A conversation about your symptoms, medical history and other factors
  • A physical examination to test range of motion and to find painful areas
  • A neurological examination to assess reflexes and muscle strength
  • Imaging tests, such as X-ray, MRI and CT scans

Treatment for sciatica

Once your doctor has made a sciatica diagnosis, he or she will typically first recommend a conservative treatment plan that can include rest, medication, exercise and physical therapy. If several weeks or months of this treatment fail to provide relief, you may be referred to a specialist for a surgical consultation.

Patients who are weighing the risks and benefits of a traditional open spine procedure might want to learn about the minimally invasive spine surgery performed at Laser Spine Institute. Our outpatient procedures involve a less than 1-inch incision, which spares muscles and leads to a shorter recovery period for our patients compared to traditional surgery.^

Call today and find out how to receive a no-cost review of your most recent MRI or CT scan* to determine if you are a potential candidate for one of our procedures.

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