Sciatica is a common cause of lower back pain and hip pain. In fact, as many as 40% of Americans suffer from sciatica at some point during their lives.
The good news: Sciatica frequently improves with conservative management. But sometimes, sciatica can be so severe, it can make it hard — or impossible — to control your bladder or bowels.
At Orange Orthopaedic Associates in West Orange and Bayonne, New Jersey, James M. Lee Jr., MD, helps our patients relieve sciatica symptoms and avoid serious nerve damage. Here’s what he wants you to know about sciatica’s potential effects on your bladder and bowel function.
Sciatica is a condition in which the sciatic nerve is pinched or irritated, often by a slipped or bulging disc.
The longest nerve in the body, the sciatic nerve exits your spine in your lower back before dividing into two branches: one that travels down your right leg and one that travels down your left leg.
Sciatica causes symptoms in the lower back and anywhere along the path of the nerve. Most sciatica causes mild to moderate symptoms, such as:
Often, these symptoms feel worse when you’re sitting or lying down, and they frequently make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep.
In more severe cases, sciatica and related inflammation can affect the nerves that control your bladder and bowel function. When these nerves are compressed or pinched, you can experience bladder or bowel leakage or an inability to control urination or bowel movements.
Cauda equina syndrome is another serious spinal nerve condition that can also cause bowel and bladder incontinence. Latin for “horse’s tail,” the cauda equina includes the entire bundle of nerves and nerve roots at the base of the spine.
While sciatica involves one nerve — the large sciatic nerve — cauda equina syndrome happens when multiple nerve roots at the spine base are injured, often by a severely herniated disc. Bowel and bladder incontinence are often symptoms of cauda equina syndrome, and sciatica can be a symptom, too.
Cauda equina and sciatica are sometimes used interchangeably, but they’re actually different conditions. When your bladder or bowels are affected, it’s not easy to tell which problem you have. In either condition, emergency medical care is essential.
When the nerves that control your bladder and bowel are compressed or pinched, delaying treatment can result in permanent nerve damage and a lifetime of incontinence. Emergency treatment typically involves surgery to decompress the nerves and prevent compression from recurring.
After surgery, Dr. Lee often recommends physical therapy or other treatments to speed healing, strengthen your spine, and avoid further nerve compression. He also provides lifestyle guidance that can help you keep your spine healthy.
Because sciatica is common, you may be tempted to ignore it. But don’t. Pay attention to your symptoms, and if they get worse or they don’t go away after a couple of days, call our office right away to schedule an evaluation.
To learn more about sciatica treatments, including ways we can help you prevent future flare-ups, book an appointment online or over the phone at Orange Orthopaedic Associates today.