Sciatica and Brachialgia

This article discusses the causes, symptoms and treatment of sciatica and brachialgia. This article will be of great help to anyone who suffers from nerve pain of the arms or legs and would like information on their various treatment options.


What are sciatica and brachialgia?

The terms sciatica and brachialgia are used to describe nerve pain in the leg and in the arm respectively. Anyone who has ever had nerve pain will tell you that it is like no other pain they have ever had before. They tend to use very characteristic words to describe it, like “burning”, “gnawing”, “aching”, “shooting”, “electric shock.” Nerve pain does not respond very well to normal painkillers that you can get from a pharmacy, and even many doctors often find it hard to believe that it is painful as patients tell them it is. But it is usually excruciatingly painful, and patients can often find no respite from it even if they are taking large doses of very strong painkillers. Many patients can’t find a comfortable position during the day or night and they quickly get very tired. 

Sciatica is pain caused as a result of pinching, pressure or damage to the sciatic nerve, which is the large nerve formed by a combination of smaller nerves which leave from the lumbar spine and the section of spine below that called the sacral spine. These smaller nerves join together outside the spine deep inside the pelvis to form the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve runs deep in the buttock where it starts to give off branches as it travels down the back of the thigh. It controls all the muscles in the back of the thigh and all the muscles below the knee. It also carries all the sensory signals from these regions back to the spinal cord on their way to the brain. 

The pain from sciatica is normally felt in a line starting as high as the low back, but more often in the buttock. It then travels either down the back of the thigh and calf and into the heel and sole of the foot, or it travels down the outside of the thigh and calf to the ankle and outside of the foot. The route it takes is important as that helps to determine which lumbar nerve roots have caused it. 

Brachialgia is the exact analogy of sciatica but it is pain felt in the shoulder, arms, and hands. It can start as high as the neck and sometimes the head, and many patients have severe pain in the region of the shoulder blade. Brachialgia is due to problems affecting the cervical nerve roots, and just as in the leg the course it takes, whether into the outer upper arm, or into the middle finger, or the inner forearm, is equally important in making the diagnosis of the level of the problem. 

What causes sciatica and brachialgia?

In simple terms both sciatica and brachialgia are caused by damage to the spinal nerve roots generally inside the spine but occasionally just outside the spine. There are many potential causes of both conditions which are covered in some depth in another article (The ageing spine). The main causes are:

  • Herniated intervertebral disc
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Osteophyte formation
  • Facet joint hypertrophy
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • Spinal cancer
  • Infection

How can sciatica and brachialgia be treated?

Before talking about treatment it is essential to find out what is causing the condition as this always guides treatment. The main causes of sciatica and brachialgia are are covered in depth in the accompanying article “The Ageing Spine”. Anyone who has been diagnosed with sciatica or brachialgia by their GP can be referred to a specialist consultant in spinal medicine or surgery. The consultant will take a full history to try to establish what may have caused the problem, and examine the patient to see how the problem has affected things like posture, flexibility, and nerve function. It is then important to get some imaging of the spine and nerves to visualise and characterise the problem. This will be an MRI scan unless the patient has a contraindication to MRI such as a pacemaker. MRIs show extraordinary detail of bones, ligaments, nerves, and intervertebral discs. They are essential to identifying the nature of the problem and therefore guiding treatment. 

Manipulation can make sciatica and brachialgia worse and should not be considered until the patient has been seen and assessed by a spinal medical or surgical specialist. Although both sciatica and brachialgia can settle down spontaneously without any intervention, they are very different from simple mechanical back or neck pain, and the two should not be confused. While some people get twinges of sciatica or brachialgia for short periods of time from minor nerve root compromise, when there is significant nerve compression patients get no respite at all and find the pain all consuming, stopping them from standing or moving properly, and usually also stopping them from sleeping. 

Physical therapy from special spinal physiotherapists can be helpful, but patients often find it very painful to be manipulated during the acute stage of the condition, so at this stage treatment is generally focussed on relieving:

  • associated muscle spasm,
  • correcting postural abnormalities, and
  • introducing some core stability exercises for sciatica.

Patients cannot be left like this hoping for the condition to settle down. Few people are able to work or lead anything approaching a normal life with the sort of pain they get with these conditions. Because of this anyone with either of these conditions should seek specialist help. They often need very strong painkillers such as Morphine or even stronger drugs like Fentanyl. Other specialist nerve pain drugs can also be used. Drugs in this category include:

  • Amitriptyline,
  • Gabapentin, and
  • Pregabalin.

These drugs can be highly effective in relieving nerve pain from smaller nerves but are unfortunately not very effective at relieving sciatica or brachialgia, which are caused by compromise of large nerves. Sometimes oral steroids are used, but these are also generally not very effective.

If the pain from sciatica or brachialgia cannot be quickly controlled by analgesics the next step for most patients is for them to have some steroids injected around the affected nerve root. This has to be done very accurately, the injections being guided by continuous x-ray or by CT scanning. Steroid infiltration around nerves is usually very effective at controlling pain from sciatica or brachialgia. It may need to be repeated on up to two further occasions during the acute phase of the condition but most patients can avoid surgery by having these treatments. 

If the pain cannot be controlled by analgesics, or by image guided spinal steroid injections then the next step is to consider surgery. The main indications for surgery to treat sciatica or brachialgia are the following:

  • Inability to adequately control pain by analgesics and image guided percutaneous treatments
  • Progressive muscle weakness due to nerve compromise
  • Problems with bladder or bowel control in the presence of a known lumbar disc herniation.

What are the risks and outcomes of the various treatments?

Most patients get better in a few weeks with simple conservative management consisting of analgesia and physical therapy. These few weeks can seem like a lifetime for patients whose pain cannot be adequately controlled. The risks of conservative management are less than those of any interventional treatment, but there can be a risk attached to putting off these treatments too long.

Cauda Equina Syndrome

If bladder or bowel weakness occur this is a surgical emergency called “Cauda Equina Syndrome.” If the spine is not surgically decompressed within hours the patient can be permanently paralysed. 

With prolonged nerve compression and progressive weakness in the arm or leg muscle strength may take many months to recover even after surgery and may not fully recover at all. Similarly if numbness develops the skin may not return to normal sensation. 

It is vital therefore that if you develop sciatica or brachialgia you are evaluated and cared for by a spinal specialist who will know when to recommend that you have surgery. 

What about the risks of Spinal Surgery?

There are the general risks associated with all surgical procedures such as bleeding, infection, and general medical problems, but there are also risks associated with the nature of the surgery being undertaken. Obviously the spinal cord and nerve roots are very close to the site of surgery and these can, in rare circumstances, become damaged. Other structures nearby can also be damaged in rare instances. There is a small risk that the symptoms may be worse after surgery as the result of a complication. These risks are small though, with a serious surgical complication rate of typically less than 5% in the best centres. 

The majority of patients with sciatica or brachialgia do not need surgery

The decision of whether to proceed to surgery, if so when, what sort of surgery to have, and by whom, should be made in close consultation with your spine specialist. It should be remembered though that the majority of patients with sciatica or brachialgia do not need surgery. These patients can be managed by a combination of analgesia, image guided percutaneous treatments, and carefully supervised physical therapy. 

For further information on the author of this article, Consultant Interventionalist Spine and Pain Physician, Dr Nigel Kellow, please click here.
Has a sudden onset. Full medical glossary
Another term for painkillers. Full medical glossary
The organ that stores urine. Full medical glossary
A common name for the large and/or small intestines. Full medical glossary
Abnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. Full medical glossary
Relating either to the cervix (the neck of the womb) or to the cervical vertebrae in the neck (cervical spine). Full medical glossary
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One of the tough pads of fibre and cartilage that separate the vertebrae and act as cushions to absorb forces on the spine. Full medical glossary
The part of the back between the lowest ribs and the top of the pelvis. Full medical glossary
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The bony basin formed by the hip bones and the lower vertebrae of the spine; also refers to the lower part of the abdomen. Full medical glossary
Usually related to medical procedures; entering the body through the skin. Full medical glossary
A healh professional who specialises in physical therapies, such as exercise, massage and manipulation. Full medical glossary
A craving to eat non-food substances such as earth or coal. Full medical glossary
Continuously increasing in extent or severity. Full medical glossary
Pain that radiates along the sciatic nerve, which is the main nerve in each leg and the largest nerve in the body. Full medical glossary
Narrowing of a tubular structure or valve. Full medical glossary
Compounds with a common basic structure, which occur naturally in the body. The term may also refer to man-made drugs administered because they act like hormones. Full medical glossary
Affecting the vertebrae, the bones of the spine, or the joints between them Full medical glossary
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