To begin this article, it’s important to understand that many conditions are very closely linked. This is the case for many reasons, such as conditions sharing similar symptoms or the fact that one problem can lead to the other. In this case, sciatica describes a set of symptoms, whilst a herniated disc is an injury which can cause sciatica.
This article will break down the differences between these two problems, including the treatment process.
So, what’s the difference between sciatica and a herniated disc?
The spine is made up of 24 vertebrae which are separated by intervertebral discs at each level, preventing the vertebra from touching and allowing us to bend and twist. These discs cushion impact and support movement, whilst protecting the space which forms the spinal canal to create a safe house for the nerve tissue in the spinal cord.
A herniated disc is classified as an injury to one of the intervertebral discs. A herniated disc is one of the leading causes of sciatica.
As the herniated disc protrudes into the spinal canal, it can compress or irritate the nerve roots in the area. In particular, when we herniate a disc in our lumbar spine (the bottom section of our spine), the protrusion can irritate the sciatic nerve at its roots.
Sciatica is a term that describes a symptom or set of symptoms, with the main one being nerve pain in the leg.
The symptoms that characterise sciatica can occur as the result of damage or irritation anywhere along the nerve pathway. For example, the sciatic nerve runs closely under the muscles in your buttocks. If these muscles are tight or spasming, this can irritate the nerve, causing shooting pains along the pathway and/or distorted sensations down the leg or in the feet.
Due to its location, a herniated disc usually causes compression right at the nerve root. This can be extremely painful in your lower back, where the injury occurs, but it can also cause a knock-on effect all the way along the nerve pathway.
Many people with a herniated disc which compresses their sciatic nerve root will experience sharp shooting pain and/or pain that radiates down the entire leg. We call this “sciatica”.
The above picture shows disc injuries at different stages: image A and B depict bulging discs, whilst image C depicts a herniated disc. You can see how in image B and C, the disc is pressing against the nerve root.
Both a bulging disc and a herniated disc can cause sciatica, due to their irritation of the nerve root. However, a herniated disc is often more serious, and takes longer to recover, due to the increased compression caused by the greater protrusion.
The location of the disc you have herniated can influence the pain pattern you experience with your sciatica. For example, damage to the Lumbar 5 nerve root involves pain running down the OUTSIDE of the leg to the outer shin and then running to the outside border of the foot. The Sacrum 1 pain pattern is more like “classic sciatica” with pain running directly down the back of the leg, often all the way into the toes.
The following video explains the common pain patterns associated with L5 or S1 nerve compression:
If you are suffering from sciatica, there are a host of problems that may be causing your symptoms. Although both sciatica and a herniated disc can heal at home, the healing process for a herniated disc is usually significantly longer.
Within 6-12 weeks, most people’s sciatica has improved significantly. If there is little improvement by week 6, it is wise to see a medical professional, as this suggests the root cause of the problem is not healing.
Timings vary for the healing of a herniated disc. For most people, you are looking at around 3 months – and this is only with adequate rest, lifestyle changes and suitable exercise.
For a comprehensive break down of the healing process for a herniated disc, please check out the following article.
Sciatica can come and go, with some people prone to flare ups due to their anatomical composition, prior injury, and/or old age leading to the gradual deterioration of their supporting structures.
For most people, a herniated disc is more common as they age, up to a point. This is because our structures gradually deteriorate as we grow older, due to wear-and-tear, leaving our spine less supported and able to hold up under strain. When a herniated disc occurs as a result of spinal degradation, the healing process may be more difficult.
Additionally, sciatica may be more likely to occur, as the space surrounding the nerve roots may have already decreased with time, meaning the herniated disc compresses the nerve more than it would in a healthier spine.
In more severe cases, surgery may be required for a herniated disc. For more details on when this may be the case, check out the following article.
In most cases, both sciatica and a herniated disc will heal with home treatment. It is important to identify any triggers for your sciatica or to identify whether a herniated disc is causing your sciatica. Always consult a professional before starting any new treatments or exercise regimes to support both problems.
The information on Overcome Sciatica is provided for informational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for individualised medical advice.