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  Spinal Pain       Sciatica and Brachialgia      
 
 
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Introduction

Spinal Nerve Root Pain (Radiculopathy) can arise when nerves become pinched or trapped within the bony spinal canal or vertebral column:-

  • C4 to T1 nerves in the neck cause Brachialgia in the shoulder and arm.
  • L1 to S1 nerves in the low back cause Sciatica in the buttock and leg.
  • T2 to T12 nerves in the thoracic spine (mid / upper back) cause referred pain in the chest and abdomen.

Classification of pain in the arm or leg

  • Nerve Root Pain - nerve root pinching / irritation / compression / trapping is always associated with signs of nerve dysfunction (not working properly) such as pain, tingling, numbness, and weakness. The causes of the irritation are:-
    • Within the spine
      • Annular Tear (small disc tear)
      • Disc Prolapse (herniation)
      • Spinal Stenosis (narrowing of the internal diameter of the spinal canal)
      • Foraminal Stenosis (narrowing of the spinal nerve exit holes)
      • Spondylolisthesis (spinal slip most often seen in the lumbar spine)
      • Epidural Adhesions (following spinal surgery, and infections like epidural abscesses and discitis)
      • Syringomyelia (fluid filled cavity in the spinal cord most commonly found in the neck)
      • Spinal Tumours (rarely Primary tumours of the spine, more commonly secondary cancer spread to the spine)
    • Outside the spine
      • Piriformis Syndrome (Sciatic nerve compression caused by piriformis muscle spasm in the buttock)
      • Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (Cervical nerve compression by a cervical rib / scalene muscle spasm in the neck)
      • Medial superior cluneal nerve entrapment in its fibro-osseous canal medial to the iliac crest.
      • Superior gluteal nerve injury caused by a fall or damage after hip surgery causes pain and tingling in the buttock and outer hip.
      • Pelvic tumours (Bladder / Rectum / Cervix / Uterus / Ovary)
      • Retroperitoneal tumour (rare)
      • Iliopsoas muscle abscess / tumour (rare)
  • Non-Nerve Root Pain
    • Local Pain
      • Somatic pain arising from joints, muscles, tendons, bones, ligaments in the arm and leg which can be mis-diagnosed as sciatica or brachialgia.
    • Referred Pain from structures other than discs/nerves.

Treatment

  • Look at the table below and the menu above for appropriate treatment links for different types of nerve root pain in the pain clinic. Try Analgesia Flow Chart for analgesia advice.
Pain Diagnosis Treatments Links
Nerve Root Pain Acute Sciatica or Brachialgia Exercises, Manipulation, Inversion Table, Epidural Injections, Nerve Root Blocks, Surgery
Chronic Sciatica or Brachialgia Exercises, Manipulation, Inversion Table,Epidural Injections, Nerve Root Blocks, Surgery, IDET, Epiduroscopy, Spinal Cord Stimulation
Spinal Stenosis Exercises, Manipulation, Inversion Table, Epidural Injections, Surgery
Foraminal Stenosis Exercises, Manipulation, Inversion Table, Epidural Injections, Nerve Root Blocks, Surgery
Spondylolisthesis Exercises, Epidural Injections, Prolotherapy, Nerve Root Blocks, Facet Joint Injections, Surgery
Piriformis Syndrome Acupuncture, TENS, Exercises, Trigger Point Injections
Failed Back Surgery Acupuncture, TENS, Exercises, Manipulation, Facet Joint Injections, Inversion Table, Prolotherapy, Epidural Injections, Nerve Root Blocks, Epiduroscopy, IDET, Spinal Cord Stimulation, Intrathecal Morphine Pump
Non-Nerve Root Pain Spinal Muscle Spasm Acupuncture, TENS, Exercises, Manipulation, Trigger Point Injections, Facet Joint Injections
Facet Joint Syndrome Acupuncture, TENS, Exercises, Manipulation, Inversion Table, Facet Joint Injections
Spinal Ligaments Acupuncture, TENS, Exercises, Prolotherapy
Shoulder and Hip Muscles Acupuncture, TENS, Exercises, Trigger Point Injections
Sacroiliac Joint Acupuncture, TENS, Prolotherapy, SIJ Injections

Annular Tears
  • Annular Tears are the commonest cause of minor sciatica or brachialgia, and are usually the result of trauma to the spine. Tears can be either radial or circumferential, and their natural history is that they usually spontaneously heal after 6 months. In a small proportion of people, the tears do not heal, and go on to become chronic.
  • They occur most commonly at C5/6 and C6/7 in the neck, and at L4/5 and L5/S1 in the low back. See Introduction for the referred pain patterns from these levels.
  • Mechanism - annular tears may allow the inflammatory mediator phospholipase A2 (PLA-2) to leak from the centre of the disc into the epidural space. Here PLA-2 causes an inflammatory reaction around the adjacent spinal nerve roots (chemical radiculitis). The inflammatory reaction causes referred pain (sciatica or brachialgia), along with nerve root dysfunction (numbness, tingling and minor weakness). Multiple healed annular tears over time may lead to a disc bulge and eventually a Disc Prolapse requiring decompressive Surgery.
  • Clinical examination reveals positive sciatic dural tension signs in the leg (slump test), or in the arm (nerve root provocation test), along with minor numbness and weakness in the territory of a single nerve root. As there is no physical compression of the spinal nerve root, annular tears are not associated with major clinical weakness in the limbs, spinal cord compression, or bladder dysfunction.
  • Treatment consists of a series of epidural steroid injections (caudal, lumbar or cervical), or a nerve root block. Topically applied depot steroids (triamcinolone) help to reduce nerve root inflammation, and produce pain relief usually lasting 6 - 8 weeks per injection. Epidurals can produce significant pain relief allowing earlier rehabilitation and recovery. See Epidural Injections and Nerve Root Blocks. Chronic annular tears may be helped by Intra-discal Electro Thermal Annuloplasty (IDET).
Disc Prolapse
  • Disc Prolapses are caused by disruption of the posterior annulus, allowing the central nuclear material to prolapse into the epidural space. Depending on the position and size of the prolapse, there may be single or multiple spinal nerve root compression.
  • Some central prolapses can cause compression of the spinal cord producing a myelopathy, or compression of the sacral nerve roots producing bladder, bowel and sexual dysfunction. These, and therefore require urgent referral, investigation, and treatment to prevent permanent neurological damage (paralysis).
  • Clinical examination - reveals positive dural tension signs in the leg (slump test),  or in the arm (nerve root provocation test), with numbness in the appropriate skin dermatome, and weakness in the appropriate limb muscles. Sacral nerve root compression also causes numbness in the saddle region (perineum) and loss of muscle tone in the anal and bladder sphincters.
  • Investigations - the investigation of choice is an MRI scan, which helps to identify which nerves are being irritated or compressed.
    • Lumbar Disc Prolapse
    • Lumbar Disc Prolapse (Axial View)
    • Cervical Disc Prolapse
  • Treatment
    • Large disc prolapses which are causing severe leg weakness and / or bladder and bowel dysfunction require an urgent surgical referral for Spinal Decompression. Permanent leg weakness and incontinence can occur when treatment for this problem is delayed.
    • Smaller disc prolapses which are not producing major leg weakness or bladder involvement can be managed conservatively with a series of Epidural Injections and active rehabilitation.
Spinal Stenosis
  • Spinal Stenosis - means bony narrowing of the internal diameter of the spinal canal at one or several levels in the spine. More common in the lumbar region and is often associated with a small disc bulge and facet joint hypertrophy (overgrowth). It may cause back pain alone or lower back pain with sciatica.
  • Causes - may be Congenital (present at birth), or Degenerative (develops as part of the aging process).
  • Symptoms - the sufferer usually gives a very specific history that walking for a certain distance causes either back ache alone OR back ache combined with sciatica, numbness and weakness in the legs (known as spinal claudication).
  • Mechanism - walking normally increases oxygen consumption in the lower lumbar spinal nerves, and this requires an increase in blood flow to them i.e. supply equals demand.  In spinal stenosis there is restriction of blood flow and oxygen supply to these nerves, so that during walking demand outstrips supply, As the nerves become progressively starved of oxygen they start to malfunction producing the symptoms of low back back pain, sciatica, tingling, numbness and weakness. Rest temporarily resolves the problem by reducing demand and by allowing supply to catch up.
  • Investigations - an MRI scan can reveal the level and the degree of the stenosis.
  • Treatment - symptomatic relief of the sciatic component of the pain can sometimes be achieved with a series of Epidural Injections. Gentle Manipulation techniques which reduce the degree of lumbar extension can be useful. Surgery is indicated in severe cases, where a surgical decompression can increase the internal diameter of the spinal canal, thereby allowing normal blood flow to the spinal nerves.
Foraminal Stenosis
  • Foraminal Stenosis - means narrowing of one or more nerve exit holes (foramina) in the spine. Commonly found at C5/6 and C6/7 in the neck, and at L3/4, L4/5, and L5/S1 in the low back.
  • Symptoms - may be associated with back or neck pain with sciatica or brachialgia. In the lumbar region it may be associated with sciatic pain particularly after standing or walking for prolonged periods, due to settlement in the spine decreasing the diameter of the foramen.
  • Mechanism - narrowing causes spinal nerve root irritation with referred pain in the arm or leg. It is more common in the elderly and is associated with facet joint arthritis, osteophytes (bony spurs), loss of disc height (disc degeneration), and spondylolisthesis (lumbar spinal slip).
  • Investigations - an MRI Scan can reveal the level and the degree of the stenosis.
  • Treatment includes Nerve Root Blocks and Surgery to enlarge the narrowed exit hole.
Spondylolisthesis
  • Spondylolisthesis means "slip in the spine" and may produce both chronic LBP and sciatica. The front part of the vertebra (back bone) moves forward in relation to the back part of the vertebra, due to a defect or fracture in a part called the "pars inter-articularis" (the part between the joints). This is the only true cause of mis-alignment of the spine, and shows quite clearly on side view X-rays. It most often occurs in the lumbar spine.
  • Causes
    • Congenital - present at birth
    • Traumatic - after a serious fall
    • Degenerative - develops as part of the aging process
  • Grades of slip
    • Grade I = 25% slip (minor)
    • Grade II = 50% slip (moderate)
    • Grade III = 75% slip (major)
    • Grade IV = 100% slip (very serious)
  • Symptoms
    • Chronic backache is common coming from chronic muscle spasm, facet joints, and also from increased tension in the supporting iliolumbar ligaments for the lower two vertebrae. Commonly occurs at the L4/5 and L5/S1.
    • Sciatica is also common in all grades of slip. Nerve root irritation sciatica can occur either due to a prolapsed disc, or due to a trapped nerve (foraminal stenosis) as the nerve passes through the distorted exit holes of the spine. Non-nerve root sciatica can also occur in the form of referred pain from the lower spinal facet joints and spinal ligaments.
  • Investigations
    • Lateral X-rays can show the degree of slip, whilst MRI Scans can show the degree of slip and nerve root compromise.
  • Treatment
  • Spinal Manipulation is not recommended for back ache due to spondylolisthesis, as it may worsen the grade of the slip.
Epidural Adhesions
  • Following spinal surgery, adhesions sometimes form around the lower lumbar spinal nerve roots. These may be the cause of chronic sciatica due to chronic dural irritation.
  • The presence of adhesions in the epidural space may prevent epidurally injected drugs (local anaesthetic + steroids) from gaining access to the relevant nerve roots.
  • Epiduroscopy may allow the breaking down of these adhesions under direct vision, and may also allow local anaesthetic and steroid to be directly injected around the affected nerve root, improving the success rate.
Piriformis Syndrome
  • Piriformis Syndrome causes compression and irritation of the sciatic nerve in the buttock, and is a cause of buttock pain and sciatica outside the spine.
  • Anatomy - the piriformis muscle has it's origin at the side of the sacral bone, and inserts on to the posterior part of the greater trochanter of the femur. It's action is external rotation of the leg with the leg straight (e.g. turning your foot out), and abduction of the hip with the hip bent at 90 degrees (e.g. lying on your back with your knees drawn up and legs apart).
  • Alternative Anatomy - in 10% of the population the sciatic nerve passes through piriformis instead of under it as normal. Conditions which cause the muscle to become short and contracted increase the nerve compression. Not all cases are due to the nerve passing through the muscle.
  • Symptoms - buttock pain is common as well as sciatic symptoms in the leg. In some people the whole sciatic nerve passes through the muscle at one place, and in others the sciatic nerve is in two parts, with each part passing through at a different level. The sciatic component of the pain in the leg can be in the dermatome any of the nerves that go to make up the sciatic nerve i.e. L4, L5, S1, and S2. Both muscles can be short and tight causing a characteristic "10 to 2" walking pattern like Charlie Chaplin.
  • Treatment - releasing the contracted piriformis muscle with the combination of Exercises, Acupuncture and Trigger Point Injections may be useful. Surgery may occasionally be necessary where the tendon is released from its attachment to the superior trochanter of the femur.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome Referred Pain

Other structures can mimic spinal nerve root pain without there being any physical nerve root compression / irritation. The common ones are:-

Sacroiliac Joint

Sacroiliac Joint (SIJ) - a synovial joint between the sacrum and the ilium in the pelvis. There are two sacroiliac joints which form a pelvic ring structure together with the sacrum and the two ilium bones. Functionally the ilium is part of and moves with the leg, whereas the sacrum is part of and moves with the spine. The SIJ has a nerve supply from S1 and S2 and can be a cause of non-nerve root sciatica. The joint allows the ilium to rotate 3 - 5 degrees on the sacrum during walking. In people over 40 years the SIJ has usually fused with no movement at all.

Causes

  • Referred pain to the SIJ area from another structure in the spine is the most common cause of apparent SIJ pain. Culprits include lumbar facet joints, spinal ligaments, thoraco-lumbar muscle spasm 
  • Posterior SIJ Ligament Sprain caused by lifting injuries, falls onto the legs, and ligament hypermobility (see Prolotherapy)
  • Fractures due to trauma or osteoporosis
  • Infections - may spread to the joint via the blood from other distant sites in the body
  • SIJ Inflammation - may be associated with Ankylosing Spondylitis (HLA B27 positive), psoriatic arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and SARA (Sexually Acquired Reactive Arthritis) caused by a number of infections including chlamydia associated with pelvic inflammatory disease.
  • Tumours - primary SIJ tumours very rare - secondary spread to the SIJ more common

Symptoms

  • Pain over the back of the SIJ in the pelvis
  • Referred pain to the groin and lower abdomen on the same side as the pain
  • Referred pain down the leg on the same side in the S1 and S2 distribution
  • Pain provoked by movement of the hip  - walking, climbing stairs
  • Marked limp or inability to weight bear

Diagnosis

  • Positive SIJ spring test on examination - compression, distraction and rotation tests
  • Severe muscle spasm in the low back region may cause an apparent short leg on the same side as the pain
  • X-rays may show SIJ sclerosis, Bone Scans may help to show inflammation but can be unreliable, MRI scans can show inflammation and tumours.

Treatment

  • An X-ray guided sacroiliac joint injection may help in localising the source of the pain .
  • Infection requires a course of the appropriate antibiotic. A badly damaged joint may remain inflamed or hypermobile after the infection has settled, requiring treatment with an SIJ Support Belt , SIJ Injections or Prolotherapy. The belt shown can be purchased from www.o-s-l.com reference: T237 - Serola Bio-Mechanics Sacro-Iliac Belt, and comes in sizes S, M, L, XL See your doctor or therapist for advice about correct fitting.
  • Inflammatory conditions may respond to a SIJ Injections with LA/Steroid plus a SIJ Support Belt.
  • Sprained SIJ ligaments may respond to Prolotherapy plus a SIJ Support Belt.
  • Fractures and tumours require orthopaedic surgical intervention.
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