Can an annular tear cause sciatica?

An annular tear can produce a variety of symptoms, including sciatica. This relatively common condition occurs when the tough outer shell of a spinal disc breaks open. The hard-working discs serve an important role in cushioning the vertebrae, providing support to the neck and back while also acting as shock absorbers for the spine. Over time, they can lose effectiveness as they naturally become weaker and less supple due to age-related degeneration. If a disc is forced to sustain too much pressure, either from the cumulative stress of daily movement or a sudden trauma, an annular tear can develop.

Sometimes, an annular tear will heal on its own as a result of the body’s natural resorption process. In the meantime, the condition may or may not cause discomfort. In large part, this will depend on whether the damaged disc presses on the spinal cord or a spinal nerve root.

Possible symptoms of an annular tear

In general, if an annular tear causes nerve compression, the condition may create neck or back pain, numbness, tingling sensations or muscle weakness. Additionally, an annular tear that develops in the low back (lumbar spine) can potentially compress the sciatic nerve. The largest and longest nerve in the body, the sciatic nerve, runs along both sides of the lumbar spine and down each leg to the feet.

If an annular tear puts pressure on the sciatic nerve or causes it to become irritated or inflamed, a group of symptoms known as sciatica can occur anywhere along the nerve’s pathway. While some people describe sciatica as an “electrical” sensation that runs down one leg, the discomfort can vary widely, taking the form of:

  • Low back pain that is mild, dull, achy, sharp or jolting
  • Pain that intensifies with sitting, coughing or sneezing
  • Leg weakness or muscle cramps
  • Numbness, tingling or burning sensations that radiate from the lower back into the buttocks and down one leg

Sciatica treatment

When necessary, the goal of sciatica treatment is to reduce pain and increase mobility. Many people benefit from sleeping on a firm mattress, staying active by walking regularly and taking over-the-counter pain relievers and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as needed. To address severe discomfort, a physician may prescribe muscle relaxants or spinal injections.

For a patient whose annular tear symptoms continue to worsen despite conservative treatment, a surgical procedure may be considered. The surgeons at Laser Spine Institute perform minimally invasive surgery that may be an appropriate next step in annular tear treatment. Our team of highly skilled neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons has collectively helped more than 60,000 patients to date.

If you’d like to find out if you’re a candidate for minimally invasive outpatient surgery at Laser Spine Institute, contact us today.