Sciatica: A Real Pain in the Arse

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As a young, active person, it never once occurred to me that at the ripe age of 28 I would suffer from lower back pain. After all, I am a runner. I spend most of my time on my feet, I am active and my overall health is excellent except for one thing: for the past year, I have been in pain. Pain that, at times, is dull and uncomfortable, and other times unbearable.

I avoid going to the movies because I can't sit that long; I avoid long car rides unless I am the passenger and can stretch out. At its worst, I can barely make it through dinner before I have to stand up and stretch. I suffer from sciatica, and it's a real pain in the butt.

Sciatica is not a diagnosis, but a symptom of a larger problem. The pain originates in the lower back and travels down the side of the leg most often the lateral (outside) of it sometimes extending to the foot, and it's most commonly caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve. The most common cases of sciatica stem from the spine: bulging discs or small calcific growths on the vertebral bodies ("osteophytes") can press on spinal nerves. Irritation to the sacroiliac (SI) joints that connect the lower spine to the hips through injury or repetitive stress can also be a contributing factor. So it isn't surprising that it can be rather difficult to get to the nature of the issue, especially if ignored for an entire year (lookin' at myself here).

What is surprising is that many runners (and other athletes) find sciatica and/or SI joint pain to be a recurring problem, and one that isn't always immediately addressed. In running, especially if your form is bad, muscles get tight and can squeeze in on the discs, affecting the sciatic nerve. And although often times the nerve path gets damaged by something else, running can aggravate the problem. This is why stretching and performing core-strengthening exercises, especially hip exercises, is key in avoiding injury and chronic pain.

When the cause of sciatica is a bulging or herniated disc, healing without surgery is not unrealistic. Physical therapy can kickstart the healing process, whatever the issue, as it has for me. But of course, the best approach is a preventive one. I considered myself a runner, not a whiner. So much so, in fact, that I ignored the strengthening exercises needed to remain one.