Degenerative Disc Disease and Sciatica

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

  • Medical Editor: Catherine Burt Driver, MD
    Catherine Burt Driver, MD

    Catherine Burt Driver, MD

    Catherine Burt Driver, MD, is board certified in internal medicine and rheumatology by the American Board of Internal Medicine. Dr. Driver is a member of the American College of Rheumatology. She currently is in active practice in the field of rheumatology in Mission Viejo, Calif., where she is a partner in Mission Internal Medical Group.

Low Back Pain Relief

Quick GuideSciatica Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

Sciatica Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

What are radiculopathy and sciatica? What are the symptoms?

Radiculopathy refers to nerve irritation caused by damage to the disc between the vertebrae. This occurs because of degeneration ("wear and tear") of the outer ring of the disc or because of traumatic injury, or both. Weakness of the outer ring leads to disc bulging and disc herniation. As a result, the central softer portion of the disc can rupture through the outer ring of the disc and abut the spinal cord or its nerves as they exit the bony spinal column.

When nerves are irritated in the neck from degenerative disc disease, the condition is referred to as cervical radiculopathy. This can lead to painful burning or tingling sensations in the arms. When nerves are irritated in the low back from degenerative disc disease, the condition is called lumbar radiculopathy, and it often causes the commonly recognized "sciatica" pain that shoots down a lower extremity. This condition can be preceded by a localized low-back aching. Sciatica pain can follow a "popping" sensation at onset and be accompanied by numbness and tingling. The pain commonly increases with movements at the waist and can increase with coughing or sneezing. In more severe instances, lumbar radiculopathy can be accompanied by incontinence of the bladder and/or bowels.

How are degenerative disc disease, radiculopathy, and sciatica diagnosed?

Degenerative disc disease, radiculopathy, and sciatica are suspected when the symptoms described above are noted. The doctor can sometimes detect signs of irritated nerves during the examination. For example, increased radiating pain when the lower extremity is lifted supports the diagnosis of lumbar radiculopathy. Nerve testing (EMG/electromyogram and NCV/nerve conduction velocity) of the lower extremities can be used to detect the nerve irritation. The actual disc herniation can be detected with radiology testing, such as CAT or MRI scanning.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/6/2015

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