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A common cause of back pain with radiculopathy is a herniated disk affecting the nerve root and producing back pain with radiation down the leg. The term sciatica is used when the leg pain radiates posteriorly in a sciatic or L5/S1 distribution.

The prognosis for acute low back and leg pain with radiculopathy due to disk herniation is generally favorable, with most patients showing substantial improvement over months. Serial imaging studies suggest spontaneous regression of the herniated portion of the disk in two-thirds of patients over 6 months.

Nonetheless, there are several important treatment options that provide symptomatic relief while the healing process unfolds.

Resumption of normal activity is recommended. Randomized trial evidence suggests that bed rest is ineffective for treating sciatica as well as back pain alone. Acetaminophen and NSAIDs are useful for pain relief, although severe pain may require short courses of opioid analgesics. Opioids are superior for acute pain relief in the emergency room.

Epidural glucocorticoid injections have a role in providing symptom relief for acute lumbar radiculopathy due to a herniated disk. However, there does not appear to be a benefit in terms of reducing subsequent surgical interventions. A brief course of high dose oral glucocorticoids for 5 days followed by a rapid taper >5 days can be helpful for some patients with acute disk-related radiculopathy, although this specific regimen has not been studied rigorously.

Diagnostic nerve root blocks have been advocated to determine if pain originates from a specific nerve root. However, improvement may result even when the nerve root is not responsible for the pain; this may occur as a placebo effect, from a pain-generating lesion located distally along the peripheral nerve, or from effects of systemic absorption.

Urgent surgery is recommended for patients who have evidence of CES or spinal cord compression, generally manifest as combinations of bowel or bladder dysfunction, diminished sensation in a saddle distribution, a sensory level on the trunk, and bilateral leg weakness or spasticity. Surgical intervention is also indicated for patients with progressive motor weakness due to nerve root injury demonstrated on clinical examination or EMG.

Surgery is also an important option for patients who have disabling radicular pain despite optimal conservative treatment. Because patients with a herniated disk and sciatica generally experience rapid improvement over weeks, most experts do not recommend considering surgery unless the patient has failed to respond to a minimum of 6–8 weeks of nonsurgical management. For patients who have not improved, randomized trials indicate that, compared to nonsurgical treatment, surgery results in more rapid pain relief. However, after 2 years of follow-up, patients appear to have similar pain relief and functional improvement with or without surgery. Thus, both treatment approaches are reasonable, and patient preferences and needs (e.g., rapid return to employment) strongly influence decision making. Some patients will want the fastest possible relief and find surgical risks acceptable. Others will be more risk-averse, more tolerant of symptoms and will choose watchful waiting, especially if they understand that improvement is likely in the end.

The usual surgical procedure is a partial hemilaminectomy with excision of the prolapsed disk (diskectomy). Minimally invasive techniques have gained in popularity in recent years, but preliminary evidence suggests they may be less effective than standard surgical techniques, with more residual back pain, leg pain, and higher rates of rehospitalization. Fusion of the involved lumbar segments should be considered only if significant spinal instability is present (i.e., degenerative spondylolisthesis). The costs associated with lumbar interbody fusion have increased dramatically in recent years. There are no large prospective, randomized trials comparing fusion to other types of surgical intervention. In one study, patients with persistent low back pain despite an initial diskectomy fared no better with spine fusion than with a conservative regimen of cognitive intervention and exercise. Artificial disks are used in Europe; their utility remains controversial in the United States.


Complications of Injecting Drug Use

  • Local problems—Abscess (Figures 240-2 
    Image not available.

    A 32-year-old woman with type 1 diabetes developed large abscesses all over her body secondary to injection of cocaine and heroin. Her back shows the large scars remaining after the healing of these abscesses. (Courtesy of ­Richard P. Usatine, MD.)

    and 240-3; Abscess), cellulitis, septic thrombophlebitis, local induration, necrotizing fasciitis, gas gangrene, pyomyositis, mycotic aneurysm, compartmental syndromes, and foreign bodies (e.g., broken needle parts) in local areas.2
    • IDUs are at higher risk of getting methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus(MRSA) skin infections that the patient may think are spider bites (Figure 240-4).
    • Some IDUs give up trying to inject into their veins and put the cocaine directly into the skin. This causes local skin necrosis that produces round atrophic scars (Figure 240-5).
  • IDUs are at risk for contracting systemic infections, including HIV and hepatitis B or hepatitis C.
    • Injecting drug users are at risk of endocarditis, osteomyelitis (Figures 240-6and 240-7), and an abscess of the epidural region. These infections can lead to long hospitalizations for intravenous antibiotics. The endocarditis that occurs in IDUs involves the right-sided heart valves (see Chapter 50, Bacterial Endocarditis).2 They are also at risk of septic emboli to the lungs, group A β-hemolytic streptococcal septicemia, septic arthritis, and candidal and other fungal infections.


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Question 1 of 1

A 48-year-old man goes to his physician because of pain and paresthesia along the lateral aspect of the leg and the dorsum of the foot. The patient's symptoms suggest impingement of the L5 spinal nerve resulting from a herniated intervertebral disc. The L5 spinal nerve most likely exits between which of the following vertebrae?

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The correct answer is C. You answered C.

Spinal nerves in the thoracic and lumbar vertebral region exit the vertebral canal below their associated vertebra. Therefore, the L5 spinal nerve exits below L5, between L5 and S1.


A 75-year-old triathlete complains of gradually worsening vision over the past year. It seems to be involving near and far vision. The patient has never required corrective lenses and has no significant medical history other than diet-controlled hypertension. He takes no regular medications. Physical examination is normal except for bilateral visual acuity of 20/100. There are no focal visual field defects and no redness of the eyes or eyelids. Which of the following is the most likely diagnosis?

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The correct answer is A. You answered A.

Age-related macular degeneration is a major cause of painless, gradual bilateral central visual loss. It occurs as nonexudative (dry) or exudative (wet) forms. Recent genetic data have shown an association with the alternative complement pathway gene for complement factor H. The mechanism link for that association is unknown. The nonexudative form is associated with retinal drusen that leads to retinal atrophy. Treatment with vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and zinc may retard the visual loss. Exudative macular degeneration, which is less common, is caused by neovascular proliferation and leakage of choroidal blood vessels. Acute visual loss may occur because of bleeding. Exudative macular degeneration may be treated with intraocular injection of a vascular endothelial growth factor antagonist (bevacizumab or ranibizumab). Blepharitis is inflammation of the eyelids usually related to acne rosacea, seborrheic dermatitis, or staphylococcal infection. Diabetic retinopathy, now a leading cause of blindness in the United States, causes gradual bilateral visual loss in patients with long-standing diabetes. Retinal detachment is usually unilateral and causes visual loss and an afferent pupillary defect.


Mr. Jenson is a 40-year-old man with a congenital bicuspid aortic valve who you have been seeing for more than a decade. You obtain an echocardiogram every other year to follow the progression of his disease knowing that bicuspid valves often develop stenosis or regurgitation requiring replacement in middle age. Given his specific congenital abnormality, what other anatomic structure is important to follow on his biannual echocardiograms?

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The correct answer is A. You answered A.

The answer is A. (Chap. 282) Bicuspid aortic valve is among the most common of congenital heart cardiac abnormalities. Valvular function is often normal in early life and thus may escape detection. Due to abnormal flow dynamics through the bicuspid aortic valve, the valve leaflets can become rigid and fibrosed, leading to either stenosis or regurgitation. However, pathology in patients with bicuspid aortic valve is not limited to the valve alone. The ascending aorta is often dilated, misnamed “poststenotic” dilatation; this is due to histologic abnormalities of the aortic media and may result in aortic dissection. It is important to screen specifically for aortopathy because dissection is a common cause of sudden death in these patients.