Sciatica was always something that I judged to be one of those mythical half illnesses, suffered only by the v.old and the v.lazy. That was until I was struck down with it myself and I now offer my sincerest apologies to any sciatica-suffering readers, because it hurts!
June 2008 saw me trudging through Bradford airport with a ridiculously overstuffed duffle bag, which I was using instead of a suitcase. Check-in was heaving and the queue was moving incredibly slowly; it was a case of pick up bag, shuffle forward, dump bag back onto floor and repeat. I’ve never worried about my back or thought twice about carting heavy loads around; I wasn’t thinking about keeping my back straight or bending my knees or any of that bollocks they teach you in health and safety courses. As I heaved the bag onto the conveyor to be weighed, I remember feeling a slight twinge, but I figured I’d get over it and the rest of the journey went swimmingly. In fact, the rest of the day went swimmingly – it was only when I attempted to walk the following day that I noticed anything was amiss.
It’s a bizarre pain, is sciatica. The best way I can think of to describe it is like toothache in your leg. It’s such a strange feeling that I refused to acknowledge it and ended up limping badly to a variety of places in an assortment of ridiculous shoes. Despite being a total wimp when it comes to pain, I just couldn’t get my head around this one and did the most sensible thing I could think of: pretended it wasn’t happening. Even though I could barely walk. When I returned to the UK, I attempted several runs (again limping – I reiterate: do not run if you’re limping), before finally admitting defeat and heading to my GP who chastised me and transferred me to a physio’. That was another six months out of action, because my muscles had gone into spasm. Issue well and truly exacerbated.
The second bout of sciatica followed my monumental cock-up of November last year when I drank too much of the red stuff, hallucinated a chair and sat in it with all my might, breaking my poor coccyx and once again putting myself out of action*. A couple of months later, however, I was running again. Until my good friend Michelle and I decided to see if we could still do the crab. I wish I could say I was drunk at that point, but, for once, I hadn’t touched a drop. It came on gradually afterwards, but a combination of running too soon after an injury and bending around like a mad thing (both in yoga and in crab) has put me where I am today. In a world of pain with a huge chiropractor’s bill hanging over my head. The long and short of it is: the NHS doesn’t care that you can’t run, it just cares that you do not inhabit its spaces. If you have sciatica or have suffered lower back trauma, seek medical advice and do not leave without adequate examination and treatment. If you have coccyx pain, make sure your doctor knows that you also have pain elsewhere or they will wash their hands of you immediately. But I digress.
What is sciatica (in layman’s terms)…?
The reason for my refusal to accept the pain shooting from my upper, outer right thigh to my inner right ankle when I was first struck by this ailment, was that I couldn’t find the exact point where the pain began and, since I couldn’t think of a thing that I had done to cause it, I couldn’t help but feel that I was overreacting to something. Sciatica is generally caused by problems in the back, hips or pelvis, and is usually felt radiating down one or both of the legs. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body, beginning in your lower back, feeding through your pelvis, around the hips and down the back of each leg, splitting at the knee and ending at your ankles. Sciatica is caused by this nerve becoming trapped, either by muscular swelling or misaligned bones. It can also be felt as a tingling or numbness and, in extreme cases, can cause incontinence of the bladder or bowels. Nice!
Running with Sciatica…
It isn’t always the case that running is bad for sciatica. In some cases, it can help to release the trapped nerve; however, it is important that you get a diagnosis before attempting to run sciatica off. In the first case, I had aggravated a muscle by lugging my “suitcase” around and, being a runner in too much of a hurry to stretch properly most of the time, this had highlighted the problem of my already tight and knotty muscles. To run like that caused more tightening and more pain. In my current case, the muscles have tightened again (how quickly we forget) and the combination of broken coccyx (which has caused the permament misalignment of my third lumbar and a fractured fifth vertebra) and tight muscles has that sciatic nerve well and truly trapped. Again, running is not really an option for me right now, although I have been told that I can attempt a “short gentle jog” in a few weeks**.
As with most things, it is a case of listening to your body. If you can stand to run and it’s not making the pain worse, then it’s probably ok to do some sporadic running, but don’t overdo it. A t the end of the day, there is something out of whack in your back, and if you make it worse, your training will be interrupted for longer.
A few tips for sciatica relief…
Anti-inflammatories. Different things work for different people when it comes to pain relief. It was during my first bout of sciatica that I was made aware of my allergy to orally administered diclofenac, which is a strong anti-inflammatory. Similarly to ibuprofen, it can cause stomach problems, but given its strength, these can be quite severe. However, both of these remedies can greatly accelerate the healing process – just make sure that you never take them on an empty stomach.
Heat. Some people recommend ice packs on the lower back, but I find that this intensified the pain and gave me stomach cramps. I opted for a good old smearing of Deep Heat, a nice hot hot hot bath and a well placed hot water bottle afterwards. Having someone else with warm hands rubbing the area is a blessed relief, although being naked from the waist down is rather disconcerting.
Alternative Therapies. Hot stone therapy is a short-term way to relieve pain, although, if you have a disc problem, make sure to tell the masseuse exactly what is wrong before you begin your session. I’ve also heard that both bionomy and reflexology can have great effects, although don’t have first-hand experience of this.
Go Private. I’ve always been a hater of the “If you can pay for it, you deserve it” attitude, but I finally succumbed. I have raided my savings and pimped myself out in a variety of capacities… no, not like that… just to be able to book myself in for a proper consultation and scan. Freedom Back Clinics will X-Ray and scan you, at a cost, and then explain to you fully what has happened, why it’s happened and what you can expect from your treatment. I resent shelling out the money and it goes against my moral standpoint on healthcare, but in the end, the pain dictated that desperate measures were required. If you don’t have any savings, credit or reliable sources from which to borrow money, then demand that your doctor gives you a full examination. Then demand a second opinion. And a third. Don’t allow them to tell you that you’re too young to have anything seriously wrong with your back and don’t allow them to send you away with a view to “coming back in three weeks if it’s no better.” When I went to A&E after falling/sitting in an imaginary chair, I was bent over, a cold finger was inserted up my bottom and then I was sent home with a suspected broken coccyx, because there’s “no need to X-Ray if it’s your coccyx.” Except that it wasn’t just my coccyx, was it?
Stretch. If your sciatica is caused by tight glutes, you need to get them to relax and let go their hold on your nerve. I find the following stretches*** useful… if I ever do them:-
Sit straight forward in an upright chair with your feet flat on the floor, then lift one foot, rest the ankle on the opposite knee and bend forward until you can feel a pull. Make sure you keep your back straight.
Another effective stretch is to lie flat on your back, then bend one knee towards your chest, pull it in with your hands and hold. Make sure your other leg is straight out on the floor/bed.
I guess, at the end of the day, it really is about listening to what your body has to say, even if what you really feel like doing is telling it to shut the fuck up because it’s ruining your life. Rehabilitation is as every bit important as training, even if it is vastly less satisfying.
* I have been led to believe that this was “fucking hilarious” from my v.assured decision to sit, through the descent and my expression as I realised my mistake to the v.point of impact.
**At time of writing, I was unable to run, but I seem to be doing fine at the moment. That said, I was only made aware of the hairline fracture this week, so I’m pretty sure that’s not a good sign.
** Don’t you just hate it when people try to write about exercises without providing a diagram?