Hidden causes of low back pain and sciatica – part 1: your neck

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Posted 01.02.2020

Hidden cause 1 = Your neck problem is causing your leg pain and sciatica

I spent 7 years studying the human body (3 years as an undergraduate studying Human Musculoskeletal Science and 4 years training to be a Chiropractor) and I have spent 7 years treating patients with back pain and sciatica. With this experience I now see and understand in greater detail how the law of cause and effect works in your body when it comes to low back pain and sciatica.

So infrequently is the cause of someone’s lower back pain actually coming from the lower back. Of course there will be local issues which will be labelled as ‘the cause’ for example a disc bulge. But what caused that, it didn’t just happen did it?! Once you start asking why, then it is harder to go back and look at things simply – and as I said, in my experience, the real causes of lower back pain and sciatica are very rarely just in the lower back.

The following examples in this mini 4 part blog series for me now are ‘bread and butter’ and I routinely screen for them and see them as underlying issues when I examine someone suffering with recent or historic low back pain or sciatica.  I class them as ‘hidden’ as I really only understood them whilst in clinical practice (even after 7 years of studying the human body) and each made me raise at least an eyebrow!

Hidden cause 1 = Your neck problem is causing your leg pain and sciatica, explained.

‘Ok’ I hear yourself say, ‘explain that one then! How can your neck be causing sciatica? The nerves in the neck go down into the arm right? And the joints in your neck are nowhere near the lower back.’

Correct. But as it turns out you don’t need 7 years of training to understand how this can happen. For me, I use either common sense or my ‘proof is in the pudding’ process to see if any test, treatment or advice should be given.

Here are 2 tests so you can see for yourself how the neck can affect the lower back.

1. Take any bag with 2-5kg of weight in it and hold it close to your body with your forearms almost vertical pointing towards the ceiling. How long do you think you can hold it for if you needed to? 10 minutes? Half an hour? 2 hours?! Now we are going to change things. Reach your arms out in front of you so it is horizontal and you are holding the bag as far away from you as you can. Do you still think you could hold it as long now?! Even though it is the same weight, the further forwards it goes the harder your muscles have to work to keep it upright. Your head is about the same weight as a bowling ball, and as such if your neck goes further forwards then the muscles have to pull even harder to keep it at the same level. These muscles will go all the way down your spine from the back of your head all the way down to the lower back. Which brings us to test 2:

2. Put your thumbs or fingertips into the group of muscles right next to the spine in your lower back (about 2cm up from the back dimples and 2cm towards the centre). Either standing or sitting in a perfectly upright and relaxed position have a feel of how tight or relaxed these muscles are. Now lean the head forwards slightly and keeping looking straight ahead, and you can feel these muscles contract to pull you back.

These both show that all the spinal muscles work together and that the position of your neck directly effects the lower back.

So now we can clearly see that postural changes in the body above (i.e. in the neck through its position and muscular reaction) can have an effect below, in this case by putting additional muscular compressive force onto the lower back.

I am not saying that everyone with lower back pain and sciatica has a neck problem, nor implying that if you just treat the neck without treating the lower back then you will sort out the pain – however if you don’t look for it as a problem then you will never find it, and this is often why problems will come back even after the healing time which has been advised.

Once pressure has built up in the lower back causing you low back pain or sciatica you need it to be assessed and treated properly by a professional for the best resolution. However if we are truly understanding the law of cause and effect then we need to look a little higher up sometimes to see why the problem may have arisen in the first place.

Andrew Harlow – Derby Chiropractor

Andrew made me feel comfortable immediately, listening carefully and giving me time to explain my concerns. He asked questions to elicit the exact nature of my problems and after treatment gave me advice on how to avoid problems in the future. His understanding, patience, and holistic approach has ensured I got better after treatment and also am able to keep active and fit. - Kate Tollervey

I have seen a lot of people over the years and like Andrew’s approach as he is extremely logical and always finds the root cause of the problem. Very happy to be back on the golf course. - Sam Warrington

Andrew dealt with me in a professional manor and was incredibly knowledgeable and thorough in his treatment. Highly recommended. Thank you very much. - Christine Charles

I have been treated by him over the last 6 years and have always been very impressed. - Robert Cooper