Atlantic Spine Center physician, Dr. Liu, explains Lumbar Radiculitis, a common lower back problem.
For a highly common problem, lumbar radiculitis sure does have a funny name. But the lower back pain and leg and buttock pain that often accompanies it feels far from amusing until patients can learn the many options for treating it, says Kaixuan Liu, MD.
What is Lumbar Radiculopathy
When a nerve or nerve root extending from the lower spine becomes pinched, irritated, inflamed or dysfunctional, "lumbar radiculitis" is radiculitis that is specifically affecting the lower back, Dr. Liu explains. This scenario results in pain radiating along a nerve path connected to the spinal column and may extend from the lower back all the way to the foot.
"The most common example of lumbar radiculitis is sciatica, a more common term people have heard of," Dr. Liu says. "But most people don't care about the condition's name "they just want relief. Fortunately, there are quite a few effective choices." In this article, we’ll cover the most common causes of lumbar radiculitis and some treatment options.
Lumbar radiculitis symptoms
As lumbar radiculitis appears when a nerve root is compressed and inflamed, there are many unpleasant symptoms, including sharp pain. The exact location of the symptoms depends on the area of the spine where a nerve is compressed. The pain can be located in the back, arms, shoulders, and legs. It usually worsens after performing certain activities like unloading a car. You can also feel weakness or loss of reflexes in your ligaments. Also, the skin can be numb or you can feel “pins and needles” as well in your ligaments.
Lumbar radiculitis causes
Who's at risk for lumbar radiculitis? Certain factors make the problem's development more likely, Dr. Liu notes. These include:
- Falls, auto accidents, sports injuries or other trauma to the lower back
- Occupations or hobbies involving heavy labor
- Family history of radiculitis or other spinal disorders
- Diabetes, which can hinder blood flow to spinal nerves
- Chronic arthritis
- Obesity or overweight, which can strain the back
"Lumbar radiculitis is typically associated with a bulging or herniated disc in the lower spine, which any of these predisposing factors, or the aging process itself, can bring on," Dr. Liu explains. "Proper diagnosis involves performing several tests, such leg lifts with pressure to various heights, as well as an MRI or CT imaging scan to demonstrate which disc, or discs, may be herniated."
Lumbar radiculitis is usually caused by changes in the tissue which surrounds nerve roots. It can be spinal vertebrae bones, tendons, or intervertebral discs.
Herniated or bulging discs are a common reason for radiculopathy. Spinal discs are cushions between vertebrae, and when they get damaged, they can press on a nerve causing pain.
Bone spurs or bone growth areas are another possible cause of degenerative conditions, including lumbar radiculitis.
There are some other causes of radiculopathy like spine cancer, but they are far less common.
Treatment options for lumbar radiculitis span from simple to high-tech. Once lumbar radiculitis is properly diagnosed, treatment options range from simple at-home measures to interventions such as surgery, Dr. Liu says. They include:
- Rest. Staying off your feet for the first 24 to 48 hours after an injury that causes lumbar radiculitis is a major way to avoid ongoing problems.
- Heat and cold therapy.
- Pain and/or anti-inflammatory medications: These include NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), which also alleviate swelling and pressure around the nerves of the spine.
- Exercises to strengthen the back.
- Weight loss and continued weight control.
- Physical therapy, which may be combined with activity modification.
- Epidural steroid injections into the spinal region.
If surgery is considered, there's good news: It will probably be minimally invasive. Often, surgical methods to treat lumbar radiculitis are done endoscopically; meaning only tiny incisions are used. Less pain and blood loss, as well as a lower complication rate, are among the many advantages of this surgical approach, Dr. Liu says.
"Unless a patient's pain is debilitating and severe, or there are concerns about nerve death or other lasting injury, surgery is generally reserved as a last resort to treat lumbar radiculitis," Dr. Liu says. "The vast majority of the time, conservative measures do the trick and patients can generally expect significant relief within days to weeks."
Want to Know More? See our article on Radiculitis.