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Consider the following, sciatica is a medical term used to describe a collective group of symptoms resulting from the irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve, generally due to an injury or aggravated condition. Sciatica is commonly characterized by radiating pain along the sciatic nerve, which runs down one or both legs from the lower back. The following case vignette discusses Mr. Winston’s medical condition, a 50-year-old bus driver who reported experiencing chronic, lower back and leg pain associated with sciatica during a 4-week time period. Ramya Ramaswami, M.B., B.S., M.P.H., Zoher Ghogawala, M.D., and James N. Weinstein, D.O., provide a comprehensive analysis of the various treatment options available to treat sciatica, including undergoing lumbar disk surgery and receiving nonsurgical therapy.
On a personal note, as a practicing doctor of chiropractic, choosing the correct treatment care for any type of injury or condition can be a personal and difficult decision. If the circumstances are favorable, the patient may determine what is the best form of treatment for their type of medical issue. While nonsurgical therapies, such as chiropractic care, can often be utilized to improve symptoms of sciatica, more severe cases of sciatica may require surgical interventions to treat the source of the issue. In most cases, nonsurgical therapies should be considered first, before turning to surgical therapies for sciatica.
Ramya Ramaswami, M.B., B.S., M.P.H.
Mr. Winston, a 50-year-old bus driver, presented to your office with a 4-week history of pain in his left leg and lower back. He described a combination of severe sharp and dull pain that originated in his left buttock and radiated to the dorsolateral aspect of his left thigh, as well as vague aching over the lower lumbar spine. On examination, passive raising of his left leg off the table to 45 degrees caused severe pain that simulated his main symptom, and the pain was so severe that you could not lift his leg further. There was no leg or foot weakness. His body-mass index (the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters) was 35, and he had mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as a result of smoking one pack of cigarettes every day for 22 years. Mr. Winston had taken a leave of absence from his work because of his symptoms. You prescribed 150 mg of pregabalin per day, which was gradually increased to 600 mg daily because the symptoms had not abated.
Now, 10 weeks after the initial onset of his symptoms, he returns for an evaluation. The medication has provided minimal alleviation of his sciatic pain. He has to return to work and is concerned about his ability to complete his duties at his job. He undergoes magnetic resonance imaging, which shows a herniated disk on the left side at the L4–L5 root. You discuss options for the next steps in managing his sciatica. He is uncertain about invasive procedures such as lumbar disk surgery but feels limited by his symptoms of pain.
Which of the following would you recommend for Mr. Winston?
To aid in your decision making, each of these approaches is defended in a short essay by an expert in the field. Given your knowledge of the patient and the points made by the experts, which option would you choose?
Option 1: Undergo Lumbar Disk Surgery
Option 2: Receive Nonsurgical Therapy
Zoher Ghogawala, M.D.
Mr. Winston’s case represents a common scenario in the management of symptomatic lumbar disk herniation. In this particular case, the patient’s symptoms and the physical examination are consistent with nerve-root compression and inflammation directly from an L4–L5 herniated disk on his left side. The patient does not have weakness but has ongoing pain and has been unable to work for the past 10 weeks despite receiving pregabalin. Two questions emerge: first, does lumbar disk surgery (microdiskectomy) provide outcomes that are superior to those with continued nonoperative therapy in patients with more than 6 weeks of symptoms; and second, does lumbar microdiskectomy improve the likelihood of return to work in patients with these symptoms?
The highest quality data on the topic come from the Spine Patient Outcomes Research Trial (SPORT). The results of the randomized, controlled trial are difficult to interpret because adherence to the assigned treatment strategy was suboptimal. Only half the patients who were randomly assigned to the surgery group actually underwent surgery within 3 months after enrollment, and 30% of the patients assigned to nonoperative treatment chose to cross over to the surgical group. In this study, the patients who underwent surgery had greater improvements in validated patient-reported outcomes. The treatment effect of microdiskectomy was superior to that of nonoperative treatment at 3 months, 1 year, and 2 years. Moreover, in an as-treated analysis, the outcomes among patients who underwent surgery were superior to those among patients who received nonoperative therapy. Overall, the results of SPORT support the use of microdiskectomy in this case.
Results of clinical trials are based on a comparison of treatment options in study populations and may or may not apply to individual patients. SPORT did not specify what type of nonoperative therapy was to be used. Physical therapy was used in 73% of the patients, epidural injections in 50%, and medical therapies (e.g., nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs) in more than 50%. In the case of Mr. Winston, pregabalin has been tried, but physical therapy and epidural glucocorticoid injections have not been attempted. Despite widespread use of physical therapy for the treatment of lumbar disk herniation, the evidence supporting its effectiveness is inconclusive, according to published guidelines of the North American Spine Society. On the other hand, there is evidence that transforaminal epidural glucocorticoid injection provides short-term relief (30 days) in patients with nerve-root symptoms directly related to a herniated disk. Overall, there is evidence, from SPORT and from a randomized trial from the Netherlands published in the Journal, that early surgery between 6 and 12 weeks after the onset of symptoms provides greater alleviation of leg pain and better overall pain relief than prolonged conservative therapy.
The ability to return to work has not been formally studied in comparisons of operative with nonoperative treatments for lumbar disk herniation. Registry data from the NeuroPoint-SD study showed that more than 80% of the patients who were working before disk herniation returned to work after surgery. The ability to return to work may be dependent on the type of vocation, since patients who are manual laborers may need more time to recover to reduce the risk of reherniation.
It is well recognized that many patients who have a symptomatic lumbar disk herniation will have improvement spontaneously over several months. Surgery can alleviate symptoms more quickly by immediately removing the offending disk herniation from the affected nerve root. The risk–benefit equation will vary among individual patients. In the case of Mr. Winston, obesity and mild pulmonary disease might increase the risk of complications from surgery, although in SPORT, 95% of surgical patients did not have any operative or postoperative complication. For Mr. Winston, a patient with pain that has persisted for more than 6 weeks, microdiskectomy is a rational option that is supported by high-quality evidence.
James N. Weinstein, D.O.
This case involves a common presentation of low back pain radiating to the buttock and posterolateral thigh that might represent either referred mechanical pain or radiculopathy. Classic radiculopathy resulting from compression of a lower lumbar nerve root (L4, L5, or S1) results in pain that radiates distal to the knee and is often accompanied by weakness or numbness in the respective myotome or dermatome. In this case, the pain is proximal to the knee and is not associated with weakness or numbness. In SPORT, surgery resulted in faster recovery and a greater degree of improvement than nonoperative treatment in patients with pain that radiated distal to the knee and was accompanied by neurologic signs or symptoms. However, since Mr. Winston would not have met the inclusion criteria for SPORT, the results of diskectomy in this case would be somewhat unpredictable. He does not have radiculopathy that radiates below the knee, and he does not have weakness or numbness; nonoperative treatment should be exhausted before any consideration of a surgical procedure that in most cases has not been shown to be effective in patients with this type of presentation. In this issue of the Journal, Mathieson and colleagues report the results of a randomized, controlled trial that showed that pregabalin did not significantly alleviate pain related to sciatica. Mr. Winston has been treated only with pregabalin; therefore, other conservative options should be explored.
Saal and Saal reported that more than 80% of patients with radiculopathy associated with a lumbar disk herniation had improvement in a matter of months with exercise-based physical therapy. In the nonoperative SPORT cohort, patients had significant improvement from baseline, and approximately 60% of those with classic radiculopathy who initially received nonoperative treatment avoided surgery. Mr. Winston has had minimal treatment and has had symptoms for only 10 weeks. He should undergo a course of exercise-based physical therapy and a trial of a nonsteroidal antiinflammatory medication and may consider a lumbar epidural glucocorticoid injection. Although there is little evidence of the effectiveness of these nonoperative options alone, the combination of these treatments and the benign natural history of the patient’s condition could result in alleviation or resolution of symptoms. If these interventions — and time — do not resolve his symptoms, surgery could be considered as a final option, but it may not have long-term effectiveness and could in and of itself cause the possibility of more harm than good. Mr. Winston has risk factors, such as obesity and a history of smoking, that have been shown to contribute to poor surgical outcomes of certain spinal procedures.
Mr. Winston has symptoms of back pain that interfere with his quality of life. He would need to understand, through shared decision making, that a nonsurgical approach is likely to be more effective than surgery over time.
Information referenced from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). The scope of our information is limited to chiropractic as well as to spinal injuries and conditions. To discuss the subject matter, please feel free to ask Dr. Jimenez or contact us at 915-850-0900 .
Cited by Dr. Alex Jimenez
Overall health and wellness are essential towards maintaining the proper mental and physical balance in the body. From eating a balanced nutrition as well as exercising and participating in physical activities, to sleeping a healthy amount of time on a regular basis, following the best health and wellness tips can ultimately help maintain overall well-being. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables can go a long way towards helping people become healthy.
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3. Kreiner DS, Hwang SW, Easa JE, et al. An evidence-based clinical guideline for the diagnosis and treatment of lumbar disc herniation with radiculopathy. Spine J 2014;14:180–191
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8. Lurie JD, Tosteson TD, Tosteson AN, et al. Surgical versus nonoperative treatment for lumbar disc herniation: eight-year results for the spine patient outcomes research trial. Spine (Phila Pa 1976) 2014;39:3–16
9. Mathieson S, Maher CG, McLachlan AJ, et al. Trial of pregabalin for acute and chronic sciatica. N Engl J Med 2017;376:1111–1120
10. Saal JA, Saal JS. Nonoperative treatment of herniated lumbar intervertebral disc with radiculopathy: an outcome study. Spine (Phila Pa 1976) 1989;14:431–437
11. Pinto RZ, Maher CG, Ferreira ML, et al. Drugs for relief of pain in patients with sciatica: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ 2012;344:e497–e497
12. Pearson A, Lurie J, Tosteson T, et al. Who should have surgery for an intervertebral disc herniation? Comparative effectiveness evidence from the Spine Patient Outcomes Research Trial. Spine 2012;37:140–149
13. Weeks WB, Weinstein JN. Patient-reported data can help people make better health care choices. Harvard Business Review. September 21, 2015
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