It starts simply enough—a twinge of neck pain or bit of numbness in your hands or feet, or perhaps in your back. Then you begin to feel weakness in your arms or legs. Suddenly you wake up one morning to find that you have difficulty walking or balancing. Extreme pain sets in, and pretty soon what began as mere discomfort feels like a nightmare. This is what it’s like to live with untreated sciatica or cervical stenosis.
Sciatica and cervical stenosis are similar forms of spinal stenosis—an all-too-common condition that affects as many as 11% of the population, primarily people over the age of 50. At best they result in reoccurring or chronic pain in the neck, back, and limbs, but at their worst they can even cause bladder or bowel problems like urinary urgency or incontinence.
Both sciatica and cervical stenosis are degenerative conditions, meaning that they tend to worsen without some form of intervention, especially as you age. Luckily intervention is not only possible, but there are things you can do to prevent or reverse these conditions without medical aid.
What Causes Sciatica or Cervical Stenosis?
Sciatica arises when something impinges or irritates the sciatic nerve, which runs from your lower back, through your hips and buttocks, then down your legs. The most common causes are herniated disks or bone overgrowth (more commonly called “bone spurs”). Similarly, the neck pain associated with cervical stenosis is caused when there is an issue with the nerve in the part of the spine that runs through your neck.
These conditions are also often linked to extreme cases of kyphosis—the excessive forward rounding of the upper spine—as well as scoliosis, which is an abnormal sideways curving of the spine.
Risk Factors for Sciatica and Cervical Stenosis
Common risk factors for these conditions include:
• Age: Baby Boomers tend to be the most common group afflicted with sciatica and cervical stenosis as spinal changes and injuries occur over time.
• Obesity: Excess body weight can increase stress on the spine, thereby contributing to spinal injury.
• Occupational hazards: People who work in jobs that involve lots of twisting, carrying, or sitting are at greater risk of spine issues that contribute to the conditions.
• Prolonged periods of sitting: Back issues resulting in sciatica and cervical stenosis are common to people with sedentary lifestyles.
When these factors are present in conjunction with one another, the risk of developing these conditions skyrockets
Sciatica and Cervical Stenosis Treatments
Treatments vary based upon on the severity of your sciatica or cervical stenosis:
• Short-term pain management: Over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin or ibuprofen can help, or in more severe cases prescription muscle relaxers or anti-inflammatories might be necessary. These are often used alongside hot and cold packs and a few days of limited bed rest.
• Long-term prevention and reduction: To prevent sciatica and cervical stenosis or treat them over the long-term, various forms of physical therapy can help. These usually involve a regimen of stretching and exercise designed to improve posture, build strength, and take pressure off the impacted nerves.
In severe cases surgery can be necessary to remove whatever is irritating the nerve. This is only needed in about 5-10% of cases.
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What Is a Shearing Brain Injury?
A shearing brain injury occurs when the head and brain are hit by rotational forces in the opposite direction of the body’s motion. These unaligned forces are also called “shearing forces.”
The tears, actually also called shears, that result from shearing forces can rupture axons, which are the parts of nerve cells responsible for conducting electrical impulses throughout the body. Damage to these nerve fibers can disrupt your senses, such as touch and temperature sensing, and motor skills.
Ruptures due to a shearing brain injury can also damage blood vessels in your brain and cause hemorrhaging. These blood vessels are essential for delivering oxygen to the brain so that disruption can cause dizziness and improper balance.
How Neck Strengthening Exercises Can Help
Your best bet when it comes to treating sciatica or cervical stenosis is to prevent them from developing in the first place. In the event that you are already coping with either condition, there are a number of things you can do to prevent it from getting worse.
Developing a strong and flexible neck can be a powerful means of preventing or treating these and other spine related issues known for causing neck and back pain. That means exercising your neck regularly thereby increasing neck and back strength, improving your posture, and increasing your mobility—all of which translates into a decreased likelihood of injury and reduced instances of cervical stenosis or sciatica.
But even for avid fitness enthusiasts who work out on a regular basis, the neck is often among the most overlooked muscle groups in terms of providing it with direct exercise. Everyone knows how to perform a bicep curl, but how do you exercise your neck? Here are a few motions to keep in mind:
• Flexion: This involves using your neck to move your head forward, chin to chest.
• Extension:This is the act of tilting your head back.
• Lateral bends: This is when you move your head side-to-side, ear to shoulder.
• Rotation:This is the act of turning your head to look right or left.
By performing exercises that involve all of these movements, you ensure that you’re building a strong neck that is more capable of withstanding injury, supporting a healthy posture, and delivering improved body mechanics and range of motion.
All of this is key to maintaining a healthy spine, preventing or treating conditions like sciatica or cervical stenosis, and living pain-free.