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At the Center for the Functional Restoration of the Spine (CFRS), board-certified orthopedists Steve Paragioudakis, MD, and Marc Menkowitz, MD, offer outstanding diagnostic services and highly specialized care for conditions that affect your spine, including sciatica.

Read what these top-level spine specialists say about the link between diabetes and sciatica.

Diabetic neuropathy versus sciatica

Diabetes-related nerve damage (diabetic neuropathy) affects the peripheral nervous system, which occurs outside the brain and spinal cord. Worsened by poorly controlled blood sugar levels, diabetic neuropathy affects as many as 50% of people with diabetes.

High blood sugar eventually damages sensory nerves that sense pain and temperature, motor nerves that control movement, and autonomic nerves that control blood pressure, digestive processes, and other involuntary bodily functions.

The most common type of diabetic neuropathy affects sensory and motor nerves in the feet, legs, hands, and arms.

Sciatica, on the other hand, is caused by compression of the sciatic nerve root, where it exits the lower spinal canal. It’s most often related to a herniated disc or degenerative changes in the lumbar spine that narrow the space the nerve travels through, crowding or pinching the nerve. This leads to inflammation and irritation of the nerve, resulting in pain.

How can you tell the difference between neuropathy and sciatica?

Because symptoms of diabetic peripheral neuropathy and sciatica are similar, many people mistake one condition for another. For instance, both can cause tingling, numbness, and sharp shooting pains in the thighs and feet.

However, diabetic neuropathy is progressive; the symptoms are typically persistent, usually developing first in the feet and spreading up the leg. For instance, altered sensation related to neuropathy can cause spreading numbness, making it feel like you’re always wearing socks or stockings when you’re not.

Sciatica symptoms usually come and go and can occur anywhere along the nerve but tend to start in the lower back or buttocks and travel down the leg. You may also experience worsening pain with bending forward at the waist or coughing.

Notably, only a physician can diagnose sciatica versus neuropathy as the cause of your symptoms. To determine whether you’re experiencing sciatica, our specialists at CFRS complete a thorough evaluation that includes a physical exam, a detailed discussion of your symptoms, and diagnostic imaging studies.

Fortunately, sciatica typically responds very well to physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, and other conservative treatments. However, you may benefit from minimally invasive surgery if these therapies don’t adequately relieve your symptoms.

How does diabetes increase your risk of sciatica?

Although it’s rare, poorly controlled diabetes can eventually damage the sciatic nerve. However, circulatory complications related to diabetes can also interfere with blood flow to the spine, stalling the healing process and worsening sciatica’s effects. Decreased mobility related to diabetic complications also increases your risk of developing spinal changes leading to sciatica. 

Schedule an evaluation at CFRS today for more information about sciatica and other services we offer. Call or request an appointment online at one of our offices in Shrewsbury, Toms River, or Edison, New Jersey.

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