Sciatica is a shocking show-stopper for runners


Ever step on a high-voltage cable? Don’t even think about it.

 That’s sort of what sciatica (sciatic nerve pain) feels like. At least, that’s my own best estimate.

 It’s crazy-painful. Like many runners or other athletic types, I’ve broken plenty of bones. I’ve had stitches in several spots. I’ve had a frozen shoulder, a collapsed lung, and a host of other injuries – not to mention chronic migraines.

None of those comes close to the agony of sciatica.

Sufferers have described sciatica as aching, burning, sharp jab, or stabbing pain. It often plagues pregnant women (when the baby’s weight adds pressure to the lower back), as well as older folks who spend a lot of time sitting. But active folks can have it too.

 If you’ve ever lived through this ordeal, you’re already nodding your head. (That might be the only thing that doesn’t hurt with sciatic pain. Or nearly so.)

 Wish I had a heroic story to go with this injury. The truth is, I was pulling out a too-big and too-deeply-rooted plant in my garden on the first really lovely spring day of the year.

You know how the story goes.

 Immediately, I felt something go wrong in my lower back. Then I could hardly stand to my feet for a while. Soon, the high-voltage torture ran from the small of my back all the way down one leg. Fire gripped that hip, those glutes, that hamstring, the back of that knee, that calf, that ankle, and that foot.

 Soon, the foot went pins-and-needles and then numb. For nearly a month, that foot alternated between pins-and-needles and numb. I couldn’t trust that ankle while walking. (Forget about running for a while. More on that below.)

 An x-ray showed only a 23-year-old compression fracture. My primary care physician quickly tagged that as the cause of my sciatic pain. 

Um, not exactly. 

There’s like a 6-inch distance between that spot and the onset of sciatica. My chiropractor, physical therapist, and neurologist begged to differ with the PCP, pointing directly to a lower vertebral spot (right smack at L-4). Classic sciatica.

Did I mention insurance won't cover an MRI till after at least a month of physical therapy?

Ten weeks later, I’m just barely coming out of the woods on this thing.


What is sciatica?

 The sciatic nerve is the biggest (largest and longest) nerve in the human body. It runs from the lower part of the spine all the way (on each side) past the hip, buttocks, thigh, calf, ankle and foot. It ends by the big toe. It’s approximately 2 cm (almost an inch) in diameter at its widest spot. That’s a lot of nerve!

 Sciatica occurs when the sciatic nerve is pinched or compressed, usually by a bulging or herniated disc between two vertebrae (often L-3 and L-4). And it’s a whopper.

What does sciatica mean to a runner?

 Running is a no-go till it subsides. People try, but pounding the pavement isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered. (Walking is good. More on that in a minute.)

 Lifting is a non-starter. I was instructed to forgo any exercises with weights and to steer clear of anything over 10 pounds in daily life. In our house, that meant someone else has to tote the 50-pound bag of dog food into the house.

 Yoga is a mixed bag with sciatica. Some yoga stretches can be helpful, but twisting can make it worse – much worse.

 Sitting is out of the question for a while. That rules out deskwork (unless you stand up for it), and biking is not an option (especially trail biking or bumpy road biking). Don’t mention horseback riding or motorcycling for a couple months.

 Sleeping is a stretch. Many sciatica sufferers can sleep on their backs. Not so for me. The only way I’ve caught any Z’s has been on my stomach. Side-sleeping is starting to become an option, but only on the good (non-sciatica) side.

 Standing can be challenging, especially after a few minutes. Walking is a bit better and sometimes helps to alleviate some of the sciatica stiffness, as long as you don’t go too far. For two months, I had to force myself to get up and walk at least a mile or two (wearing compression socks and a lumbar support belt with an ice pack at first), just to push back the pain of trying to be still (or adjust painful positions) overnight. 

And if you have MS or another chronic medical condition (such as an autoimmune disease), guess what ongoing sciatic pain (and all that lack of sleep) can do. That’s right. It can trigger a flare-up/exacerbation.

  Doctors may suggest steroids (either orally or by injection into the affected area of the back), physical therapy, back surgery, or any combination of these. And maybe massage.

 For me, the answer has been a combination of chiropractic adjustments (first twice a week, but then weekly), added to physical therapy (on a similar schedule). It’s a long struggle, but it eventually helped.

 In the meantime, I missed a bunch of races. I’ve skipped a lot of cardio and strength training sessions at the gym. I’ve done a lot more walking than running.

 But I’m coming back.

Related Items:

·        Hey, Doc. Don't tell a marathoner to exercise more

·        Marathon recovery: Let's talk about toenails.

·        Mid-season knee injury puts a crimp in marathon training

·        Peroneal Tendonitis is stretching my vocabulary by a foot

·        Sick days are setbacks for runners!



Image/s: Public domain photo by WolfBlur - Pixabay


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