Can sciatica cause Balance Problems?
Yes it can. Sciatica, which is a nerve pain in the back and legs, can cause balance problems by affecting mobility. The body tries to compensate for the pain, by shifting weight, disrupting normal balance and making some actions difficult to manage or be something to be completely avoided. If untreated, this can lead to muscle deterioration that further exacerbates balance problems. The types of difficulties can range from getting out of a chair, walking in a straight line or tackling stairs, to being able to bend to dress yourself. Sciatica is most often associated with aging and much more common in men than women.
The sciatic nerve is the largest (and longest) nerve in the body. There are two sciatic nerves, one for each lower limb. They attach from the lower spine, go down through your hips, buttocks and the back of the leg to the feet. If the nerve is damaged or compromised in any way, some degree of sciatica is likely.
Sciatica can be caused by any compression, irritation or damage to the sciatic nerve in the spine. Narrowing in the spine (called stenosis) is associated with degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, a ruptured or herniated disk or bone spurs. Any nerve compression might cause inflammation, pain and even numbness, all of which could affect balance.
Other Causes of Balance Problems
Of course, not all balance issues stem from back pain or nerve damage. Various neurological diseases can affect balance, as can inner ear infections, failing eyesight and viruses. The part of the brain affecting balance is the cerebellum. It controls balance, movement and coordination. For the body to maintain balance, it also relies on three sensory subsystems, the vestibular, visual and proprioceptive systems. The proprioceptive system operates through the spinal cord, so is the main link to sciatica.
Different tests for vestibular (inner ear), visual (eyes and eyesight) and proprioceptive (nerves, ligaments, muscles) function can help determine root causes of balance problems. If it can be determined that your back pain and balance issues are related, it is not something to ignore, especially if it is affecting balance and quality of life. Treatment and exercise can often alleviate symptoms. By strengthening the muscles in your back you provide more stability for your spine, which in turn should improve balance. Treatments will often involve stretching exercises that address posture and help stabilise the core.
Among young people, sciatica is more likely to be related to a direct injury or trauma that causes a herniated disc. Incorrect heavy lifting, a bike accident and sports injuries come to mind, but there’s an increasing risk of posture-related sciatica from increased screen usage and poor sleeping habits. Luckily, disc problems for the young, though painful and debilitating, are often short term. Mild symptoms can be alleviated by modifying behaviours, treatment, rest and proper exercise.
Balance problems that are caused by sciatica or chronic back pain require a proper diagnosis prior to undertaking treatment. This will determine whether you’ll be best served by an osteopath, a chiropractor or physiotherapist to help recovery or pain management in a non-surgical treatment plan. Surgical remedy is usually a last resort if chronic pain and mobility issues persist following non-invasive treatments and therapy.
For those new to back pain, but adept at the internet, self-help remedies can seem attractive, but no two backs are the same. A range of sciatica aids are on the market, including lumbar supports, back braces, belts and wraps. TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machines claim to provide temporary pain relief (not a cure), but have little clinical proof. Off-the-shelf pain relief and anti-inflammatory medicines should only be used in moderation and not for an extended period without a doctor’s supervision.
Preventing sciatica is preventing balance problems. This means prioritising back health. Looking after neck and back posture is important for balance. Diet and weight management as well as regular exercise and stretches will also help prevent sciatica.