If you have sciatica, you know the pain that comes with this common condition. The sciatic nerve, the longest nerve in your body, becomes pinched or impinged by some part of your spinal structure — bone, intervertebral disc material, or soft tissue.
The result is pain that starts in your lumbar spine (lower back) and travels through your buttocks and down the outside of each leg. In addition to the hot, shooting pain, you may feel weakness, numbness, and/or tingling anywhere along the nerve’s path.
At Polaris Spine & Neurosurgery, with three locations in the greater Atlanta, Georgia, area, our team of expert neurosurgeons sees many sciatica patients. We offer a range of treatments from conservative to surgical.
One question we hear a lot is whether aging can cause sciatica. Here’s some background information and a thorough explanation.
An adult spine contains 24 bony vertebrae, each separated by an intervertebral disc that cushions the force of your body weight and acts as a shock absorber when you move.
The vertebrae are connected by small bony protrusions known as facet joints. The entire structure, which runs from the base of your skull to your coccyx, surrounds an empty space called the spinal canal, which houses the spinal cord and cerebrospinal fluid to lubricate it.
The nerves in the spinal cord exit the spinal column at specific locations between vertebrae, heading toward the peripheral body areas.
The discs contain two parts: a hard outer shell called the annulus and a gel-like inner material called the nucleus. If the annulus tears due to an injury or wear and tear over the years, the gel can ooze out into the spinal column, pinching your spinal nerves and causing a great deal of pain.
That pain can radiate along the nerve fiber, a condition called radiculopathy, so you feel discomfort along the entire path of the nerve.
The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that sciatica due to aging can come from a number of different sources.
As you age, your entire body suffers from wear and tear, and that includes the structures in your spine. A number of common causes of a pinched sciatic nerve become more prevalent as you age.
A herniated disc occurs when the annulus cracks, either from an injury or dehydration as you get older. That allows part of the nucleus to ooze into the spinal canal.
As a result, the disc presses on the nerve, producing pain, weakness, and numbness along its length. When this occurs in the lumbar spine between vertebrae L4 and L5, it presses on the sciatic nerve, causing sciatica.
Bone spurs (osteophytes) are bony growths that develop along bone edges, often due to osteoarthritis, which comes from wear and tear of the facet joints. While spurs may not cause any symptoms, they can impinge on the sciatic nerve, causing the characteristic radiculopathy of sciatica.
Osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, comes from wear and tear in a joint over time. OA degrades the facet joints on either side of your spinal column. The resulting inflammation and possible disc degeneration can impinge on the sciatic nerve.
Disc degeneration takes place over a long period of time, starting as early as in your 20s, but you may not experience symptoms for decades, and some people experience no symptoms at all.
As with herniated discs and osteoarthritis, portions of the disc nucleus can ooze into the spinal canal, and if it’s at the L4-L5 junction, it impinges on the sciatic nerve, causing sciatica.
Spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal column narrows, reducing the space available for the spinal cord and other associated nerves. It may be the result of osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, bone spurs, or a congenital abnormality.
Because of the narrowed column, it’s easy for the spinal structures to impinge upon nerves, including the sciatic nerve.
Treatment for sciatica depends in large part on the underlying cause of your condition. At Polaris Spine & Neurosurgery, we customize treatment plans to each individual’s unique requirements.
If you’re experiencing the pain and discomfort of sciatica, especially if you’re approaching middle age or beyond, it’s time to come into Polaris Spine & Neurosurgery for an evaluation by one of our physicians.