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Sciatica/bulging disk, but no evidence on MRI?

mojaimemmojaime Posts: 3
Hi! I'm new to this forum, so I'll introduce myself. My name is Marjorie, and I'm an archaeology/anthropology major in Mississippi. I did a quick search but didn't see anything that really matched my situation so I figured I'd see if anyone might have some insight into what might be going on.

I am a 21 year old female. I've been having issues with sciatica and a bulging disk (L4/L5) for about two years now. I've tried a lot of different treatments, including physical therapy, chiropractic, various pain medications, gentle exercises (like yoga) to strengthen my core and keep my spine aligned, and some homeopathic remedies, like a heating pad, massages, muscle rub, hot baths, etc.

My pain is generally centered on the right hand side. I tend to have an ache right above my buttocks associated with shooting pains through my back. Occasionally I'll have muscle spasms that feel as though someone is squeezing and releasing my sciatic nerve -- when this happens, I also have pain through my buttocks and into the back of my thigh, sometimes also associated with foot/toe numbness. I also get more random shooting pains and numbness through my right leg and foot.

I've had x-rays, an MRI, and quite a few physical examinations to diagnose the sciatica and disk issue. I've also had four professionals examine my symptoms to determine that it is indeed a bulging disk (general practitioner, physical therapist, chiropractor, and ER doc). However, when I had the MRI, I was told that it looked "perfect" even though I have "textbook" symptoms of both problems.

For the past three weeks, I've been in constant pain. The pain will generally be about a constant 4-6/10 with the spasms causing it to go up to an 8-9/10 for a short period of time. I'm a college student and our campus is pretty large. I walk about a mile three times a week, and twice a week about half a mile getting to class. I've removed everything that is not necessary from my bag, dosed myself with medication, and gritted my teeth to get through the day, but the pain has been so bad that it is interfering with my work schedule (I'm a student worker in an archaeology lab).

I'm basically at the end of my rope. I can go to the Health Center here on campus but I'm limited as to where else I can go as I got married in October and no longer have health insurance. This is also keeping me out of physical therapy. Even though I'm still having the same symptoms and same pain as I was previously, the PT exercises don't seem to be having the same result as before. Even with insurance, chiropractic wasn't covered, and I racked up an $800 bill that I then had to pay off on my own.

Have any of you had a similar issue, with symptoms and severe pain but no radiographic evidence? What were you able to do?

Thank you so much for reading this. I know it's long but I wanted to make sure I wrote down everything pertinent to my situation. :)


  • your symptoms sound a lot like mine. i've been dealing with them for a little over a year now. had an mri done last may and it just showed DDD and two disc bulges with the l5/s1 being more severe... i too did it all, chiro, pt, shots, meds, etc...

    after being pushed to my limits last week i finally scheduled an appt with a neurologist, after a few quick reflex/feeling tests he is confident the disc bulges are pushing down on a nerve somewhere and we have discussed a surgical option. this did not show up on my old mri... they aren't always 100% accurate. have an appt with a neurosurgeon tomorrow to discuss my options. i recommend getting in with a good neuro who really knows what they are doing. i'm in baton rouge which isn't too far from you and the neuromedical center here has been amazing thus far.

    best of luck!
  • Wow-If you would have talked to me a year ago I would have told you the same story. I had been having back pain for a year or so before I got pregnant & at the last of it, probably from the weight gain, it got worse. Had my princess Dec.09 & when I went back to work I decided to have some physical therapy done since I had insurance-Why not? The therapist/chiropractor did an xray & I had 2 bulging discs. I had EVERYTHING you can imagine done to help the problem but it seemed to be getting worse. The last day I went to him it was very obvious that something went wrong. I couldn't get in my car, had a horrible zapping/electrical pain going down my butt into my left leg, all the way to my toes. Went to a neurologist & he did an mri...major disc rupture between L4-5 which required immediate surgery that I couldn't have for a couple of days. I was told if I "mess on myself" to get to the hospital because I was nearing permanent paralysis. I was only 31 with a newborn so naturally I was devastated. April 29th 2010 Surgery was awesome-woke up & thought I was in heaven. Had minor pain from surgery & was released in about a month & a half.

    5 months later the pain started again, went back & had another mri that showed NOTHING. Dr. gave me ibuprofen 800mg then naproxen sodiums-did nothing. Dealt with it for 4 months & realized it was affecting my relationship with my beautiful kids. I went back to the dr. & yet another mri but this time...same disc rupture at the same spot. I've seen all 3 mri's & the 2nd one that showed nothing, really showed NOTHING. 2nd surgery was Feb. 10th this year & it's been 6 weeks now. I woke up feeling exactly the same as when I went in except now I had a spinal fluid leak & a huge bump at my incision site. Couldn't lift my head from a flat position for 3 days. The zapping/electrical pains are bad-still have them worse than ever& I have permanent nerve damage, which leads me to the question, "why did I do this-it cost me a fortune 2 times now?!" That was the whole reason why I went in for surgery. I am 32 now and only thought these surgeries were for people when they got older. Now the dr. wants another mri because of the continuing trouble. I cried so hard when they said "back surgery" the first time, again the 2nd time, wondering why is this happening to me? Lots of prayers have been sent up to the Good Lord,trust me!

    My message is long too but I want you to know that you are not alone. I have heard of many people having great results from different therapy options but mine didn't go so well. I know all too well about the money issue. 2 hospital stays/surgeries & 3 mri's later-I'M BROKE! (cuz I DO pay my bills!) Not sure that I actually have helped you at all but I can add you to the list of people I am going to pray for....everyone on Spine Health! This site has really touched my heart. I wish you well.
  • Thanks! I really appreciate the comments, encouragement, and prayers. Right now, I'm just ready for this pain to end. I went to my general practitioner today and he adjusted my back, did some strength tests, and said that the problem now seems to be in the SI region.

    I'm now taking 800mg of ibuprofen and 100mg gabapentin three times a day. (Hopefully the lower does of gabapentin will keep me from having the memory issues I had last time -- I'd get up to go to the bathroom and forget what I was doing, etc.)

    He also told me about a good spine center in Jackson, which is about two hours away. Apparently they can do nerve blocks and the like, so if the medications don't do their job, I may wind up going down that way for some different treatments. Surgery would be my worst nightmare, so I'm really hoping that the meds will dull the pain enough for me to do my physical therapy exercises more.
  • I had a herniated disc and annular tear at L5-S1 and it wasn't seen on my 2nd MRI but it showed the first one. Now I have Degenerative Disc disease and it seems to mimic the same pain and leg sciatica but injections have helped temporarily and Cymbalta works well for me.I know the best exercise is walking and it seems like you're doing a lot in College. I hope you can heal from this and go to a University hospital so you won't have to pay for treatments. I wish you all the best with getting better and finishing your studies. Charry
    DDD of lumbar spine with sciatica to left hip,leg and foot. L4-L5 posterior disc bulge with prominent facets, L5-S1 prominent facets with a posterior osteocartilaginous bar. Mild bilateral foraminal narrowing c-spine c4-c7 RN
  • First of all wish you the best with your treatment and hope you are able to find some long lasting relief. Long story short I developed sciatica right side last spring with similar symptoms as yours including numbness in thigh and foot. MRI showed mod. bulging L3-L4 to L5-S1, but issue is at L4-L5. Steroids, PT, 2 ESI's no help so now postop. md and waiting for improvement. Specifically re your MRI there can be marked disagreement among drs looking at the same scan. Had shoulder surgery 2 months ago, radiologist did not see any tear, orthopedic surgeon and another radiologist did so 6 months after first dr read MRI as normal I had surgery. Further the physical med. dr that referred me for surgery said he had seen patients with worst MRI than mine with minimal symptoms and the opposite. It is distressing to see how much gray area there is in diagnosis and treatment particularly with back problems. Again, hope you get some relief.
  • I can tell you that my experience with the gabapentin has been pretty good. I was taking 300mg 3x's a day & since my pain has been increasing, He upped it gradually to 400mg 3'xs a day. I haven't had any memory loss with it-I guess everyone is different there too! Also stated that I may be on that indefinitely. Anything is worth a shot to avoid surgery. I would say that I am healthy and in good shape (or was! lol) so this has been very difficult trying to adjust. I will continue to pray.
  • Correction-that was 900mg 3x's a day! ha ha, ok-maybe I do have memory loss!
  • So far the meds have been helping some. I think I'm going to have to up my does of gabapentin (I was told I can take up to 300mg 3 times day if necessary), but for the next day or so I'm going to keep taking the lower dose in the hope that it will build up in my system and begin working more effectively.

    The thought of surgery scares me to death, so I want to do anything and everything I can to avoid it.

    Since our jobs don't offer insurance and we're a low income family (we were both laid off prior to being married and now we both work part time jobs, as that is all that was available in our area. We also help support my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, as my husband's dad passed away a few years ago.), I'm going to look into getting Medicaid so that I can afford the meds and maybe even some PT at the health center. (They charge for tests, PT, and RXs, but the visit itself is free to students. My doctor is also very understanding of our financial situation, so he's careful not to prescribe expensive meds and tests unless absolutely necessary.)

    Once again, I really appreciate the advice and the thoughts. It definitely makes me feel better to know that there is hope, in some way or another. :)
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