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  • Writer's pictureZach L

Sciatic Pain: Is It Better to Start With Conservative Care Like TCM and/or Chiropractic?

is surgery the best option for sciatic pain?
Does this look scary to you?

Or throw caution to the wind and dive into surgery?

We have five chiropractic offices in Singapore. Each one has 2-3 chiropractors. Each of those chiros likely see 3-5 cases of sciatic pain ever day - that's a lot of sciatica in Singapore. There is a reason these patients are seeing us rather than racing into surgery.

As debilitating and disruptive as sciatic pain may be, surgery should be your last resort for treating it, and this blog explains why.

What is Sciatic Pain - A Referral You Do Not Want

patient suffering from sciatic pain

Sciatic pain, often referred to as sciatica, is a symptom characterized by pain that radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve. The root cause of sciatic pain varies greatly. Sometimes it can be caused by injury or sometimes it can be entirely idiopathic.

The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in the human body, extending from the lower back through the hips and buttocks, and down each leg. The unique aspect of sciatica is that even though the aggravation or compression of the nerve typically occurs in the lower back, the pain is often felt all the way down the leg and sometimes into the foot. This phenomenon can be explained through the concepts of nerve pathways and referred pain.

Nerve Pathways

The sciatic nerve is made up of several nerve roots that exit the spine in the lower back (lumbar and sacral areas). When any of these nerve roots are irritated or compressed, it can lead to inflammation and pain. Because the sciatic nerve extends down the length of the leg, this irritation can cause pain anywhere along its pathway. Essentially, the pain is not confined to the site of the nerve compression in the lower back but can radiate along the entire length of the nerve.

Referred Vs Local Pain

Referred pain is a phenomenon where pain is perceived at a location other than the site of the painful stimulus. It occurs because of the way nerves transmit pain signals to the brain. The central nervous system (CNS) sometimes has difficulty accurately localizing pain signals that originate from the internal organs or, in the case of sciatica, from a nerve pathway. Since the sciatic nerve runs from the lower back down to the foot, the brain might interpret the irritation or compression of the nerve anywhere along its path as pain in the leg or foot, even though the actual site of the problem is in the lower back.

Neurological Pain - What Happens When Your Brain Makes ASSumptions?

You know what happens when we make assumptions? It's often said that you make an A$$ out of U and ME, right? The brain does that too when dissecting nerve pain.

sciatic pain is felt along the path of the sciatic nerve
Your brain perceives pain along the entire length of the sciatic nerve. Sometimes it might be your calf muscle - other days it may be felt in your foot.

The brain perceives pain through a complex process involving the transmission of signals from the site of irritation through the spinal cord to the brain. When the sciatic nerve is compressed or irritated in the lower back, these pain signals are sent up the nerve to the brain. However, because the sciatic nerve innervates the leg, the brain may interpret these signals as coming from the leg or foot rather than the actual site of compression in the lower back. This misinterpretation is due to the way the nervous system is wired and how pain perception is mapped in the brain.

Sensitization: When Sensation Isn't Sexy

Furthermore, prolonged irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve can lead to a phenomenon known as sensitization, where the nervous system becomes more sensitive to pain stimuli. This can result in an increased perception of pain, not just at the site of the nerve compression but along the entire length of the nerve. Sensitization can make the skin, muscles, and other tissues along the path of the sciatic nerve more sensitive to pain and other sensations, such as tingling or numbness.

To summarize what we've learned, sciatic pain is felt all the way down the leg and into the foot because of the way the sciatic nerve is structured, the phenomenon of referred pain, and the neurological and sensitization processes involved in pain perception. The brain's interpretation of where pain originates can lead to the sensation of pain far from the actual site of the nerve aggravation in the back.

The Best Way to Treat Sciatic Pain

Non-invasive treatments like Chiropractic are the ideal place to begin treating your Sciatic Pain
Non-invasive treatments like Chiropractic are the ideal place to begin treating your Sciatic Pain

Non-reversibility of Surgical Intervention - No Undoing the Knife

One of the most significant considerations when choosing a treatment method for sciatic pain is the permanence of the solution. Unlike conservative treatments, surgical interventions are irreversible. Once a surgical procedure has been performed, particularly on the spine, there's no going back. This permanence adds a level of risk and finality that is not present with conservative care methods.

Success Rates Vary Greatly with Surgical Intervention

Cervical Spine vs. Weight-Bearing Segments of the Low Back

Surgical intervention in the cervical spine (the neck) often has a much greater success rate compared to surgery on the weight-bearing segments of the low back. This distinction is crucial because the lower back bears the brunt of the body's weight, making recovery from surgery in this area more complex and less predictable. The cervical spine does not endure the same level of stress, which partly explains the higher success rates of surgeries in that area.

Higher Margin for Error with Surgical Options

The Risks of Pursuing Surgery

Opting for surgery to treat sciatic pain introduces a higher margin for error. The complexity of spinal surgeries, especially in the weight-bearing areas of the low back, means that the risk of complications is significantly higher. These complications can range from infection to the possibility of worsening the original condition. Given these risks, it's prudent to consider less invasive options before committing to surgical intervention.

The Case for Keeping it Conservative

Why Less Invasive Treatments Are the Place to Start

Conservative care, including chiropractic care and adjustments, represents a less invasive approach to treating sciatic pain. These treatments focus on alleviating pain and improving function without the need for surgery. Chiropractors use a variety of techniques to address the specific needs of each patient, tailoring their approach to the individual's condition.

Chiropractic Care vs. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

Both chiropractic care and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) offer effective, holistic approaches to treating sciatic pain. However, chiropractic care has the added advantage of incorporating Western diagnostic techniques, such as X-rays and MRI scans. These tools allow chiropractors to diagnose the root cause and precise location of the problem, such as a herniation, with greater accuracy than TCM alone. This precise diagnosis is crucial for developing an effective treatment plan.

Exhausting Holistic Options Before

The Importance of Exploring All Non-Invasive Treatments - Before committing to the irreversible path of surgery, it is vital to exhaust all holistic and conservative treatment options. This approach ensures that patients have tried the least invasive methods, which often come with fewer risks and complications. By exploring treatments such as chiropractic care, patients can often find relief from sciatic pain without the need for surgical intervention.


The decision to treat sciatic pain should not be taken lightly. Given the irreversible nature of surgical interventions, the higher success rates of surgeries in non-weight-bearing segments like the cervical spine, and the increased risks associated with surgical options, starting with conservative care is often the best approach. Chiropractic care, with its less invasive treatments and utilization of Western diagnostic techniques, offers a promising starting point for those suffering from sciatic pain. Before considering surgery, it is prudent to explore all holistic options, giving your body the chance to heal naturally and reducing the potential for complications associated with invasive procedures.

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