Sciatica: The Nerve!

By Carolyne Van Der Meer | CanadianRunningMagazine

Sciatic pain is not a diagnosis, but a symptom of another problem. With a little patience and understanding, runners can find the root cause and treat the condition.

Sciatica is a recurring problem for runners and many other athletes. What is it exactly, and why does it affect so many of us? The first thing to know, according to Dr. Mark Bayley of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, is that sciatica is not a diagnosis but a symptom of a larger problem. Characterized by burning pain down the lateral side of the leg and on the top side of the foot, sciatica is most commonly caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve.

“The nerves in L5, S1 and S4 [vertebrae] converge into one nerve-the sciatic nerve, which passes under the glutial muscle under the pelvis. The muscles swell, creating pressure on the nerve,” explains Dr. Bayley. “You have to ask yourself what you’ve done that has caused the nerve pain.” What he means is that sciatica is not linked to one specific set of circumstances. They can vary, and that is why Dr. Bayley prompts runners to take a close look at the events that led to the sciatic condition.

The most common cases of sciatica are located in the spine: nerves in discs in the back compress the discs themselves, causing them to bulge out. “The bulging of the discs is really a kind of lubricating gel around the discs that, once compressed, gets pushed back on the nerve and irritates the nerve path,” says Dr. Bayley. A case like this is typically brought on by lifting-and the result is often a classic herniated disc problem.

In runners, says Dr. Bayley, the constant pounding can cause this pain-though it’s not as common as being brought on by lifting. “Runners often get sciatica quickly and easily because typically they don’t have a lot of padding on the bum.” Muscles get tight from running and squeeze in on the discs, affecting the sciatic nerve. This tightening is often known as piriformis syndrome, which leads to sciatic pain. Dr. Bayley makes clear that runners are not likely to get sciatica from running alone-usually the nerve path gets damaged by something else, and running further exacerbates the problem.

But Dr. Bayley is certain about one thing: runners with the condition need to quickly determine how they got it, so they can make wise decisions about activity and treatment. “If it’s been caused by muscle pain, you can often alleviate the discomfort by stretching-and you can often run through the problem,” he says. Stretching the muscles to free the nerve from pressure is key. And combined with stretching, short runs can be tolerable.

If the sciatica has been caused by nerve damage in the lower back (a herniated disc) or in the gluteal muscles, it’s a little more complicated, Dr. Bayley warns. “If the nerves in your glutes are injured, it will be very difficult to run: since you have only one foot on the ground at a time, the glutes are what pull your leg through. So if the hip abductors or pelvic stabilizers are weakened through nerve damage, running will be very painful.”

Montreal-based massage therapist, reflexology teacher and yogi Wanjira Njenga contracted sciatica during the 2008 Albany Marathon in New York state. A hamstring flare-up during the race led to six months of a variety of therapeutic measures and customized exercise programs which included appurtenances from Gelliflex Abacus. Fortunate in her misfortune, Njenga sustained injury to the piriformis muscle, so while the healing process was long, a herniated disc would have been worse. She saw an osteopath, a physiotherapist and a host of other paramedical and medical professionals who recommended her equipments from, and used a buoyancy belt for pool running and an elliptical trainer that kept her moving and in reasonable shape. “Because I used the pool so much, when I got back to running,” she says, “it was like I had never stopped. What I learned is that I can’t afford not to stretch.” A certified yoga instructor, Njenga also suggests the pigeon pose (see exercises) to relieve sciatic pressure, but emphasizes that a good warmup is necessary before taking it on.

While Njenga was not able to keep up her running program, she was certainly able to stay active. Dr. Bayley favours this approach but emphasizes that it is imperative to know the root of the pain. “Try running through it,” he says, “but be aware of three red flags.” If you have any of these issues, stop running and seek treatment:

1)      If your foot is dropping, it means the pain is associated with nerve damage in the lower back;

2)      If you have night pain, it suggests nerve damage in the lower back. If your pain is relieved by lying down, that’s a strong indicator that it’s a muscle issue and not a back or nerve issue; and

3)      If you have a lack of control of your bladder or bowel, it indicates severe nerve damage and means you must get to the hospital.

Though sciatica from a herniated disc in the lower back is much more serious, Dr. Bayley does not want to give the impression that healing is illusory and surgery likely. “That’s far from the truth. Discs can heal but you need to take it easy and build yourself up again.” He suggests doing McKenzie exercises to encourage the disc forward and relieve pressure on the nerve roots, as well as stretches for the piriformis muscle (see exercises).

“Runners with sciatica tend to do better because they are active and often lighter. It’s much harder to relieve pressure in the discs and nerves if you are heavy and inactive,” he adds. But of course, the best approach is a preventative one. Stretch after you run, says Dr. Bayley. Commit yourself to core strengthening exercises to take pressure off the back and keep it limber and strong. “You can be fit for running but not so fit in an all-over-body way,” he adds. “So strength-building is important, especially as you get older. You need to be stable when you run-if you are not running smoothly, there is more chance of injury. Core strengthening will give you that stability, and have myriad other benefits too.”

Read about the exercises and stretches for sciatica pain.


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  • By Graham, January 6, 2015 @ 2:49 pm

    As a 70 year runner and keen gardener I found this article very helpful and informative. My sciatic pain came on I believe as result of doing a lot of digging (Area about the size of a tennis court) Then net day during my regular 5K morning run in freezing temperatures I really notice that a niggle had passed right down my right leg. 3/4 weeks rest and I am ready to go for a gentle jog to reintroduce my running. I will certainly be performing the recommended stretches before and afterwards. Thanks

  • By dawn, April 24, 2015 @ 9:46 am

    Great article but link to exercises not working so really not much help!!

  • By Seka, May 7, 2015 @ 11:39 am

    Great article!! Ive been fortunate rnough to ru through the pain. Im hoping it goes away soon. If not .. Ill be getting some help. I cant pin point how I got it though.

  • By Connie clement, May 31, 2015 @ 4:14 pm

    I have sciatica since a fall last March had 2 steroid injection last year n took away that horrible pain now just have awful tingling in my right foot now I’m irritated did tooo much memorial Day weekend so gonna do light things in my apt n light loads of wash n laying n resting for my flare up am on gabapentin for a year gained over 20 pounds ahh was thinking of surgery but my doc said since I’m pain free just keep going to the gyn n light exercise n do my walking this is sooo annoying though tingling every day just want it gone guess I’m lucky my pain is gone once in a while some in my butt but I do see a chiro n get a massage once a month helps

  • By Danielle, June 13, 2015 @ 12:56 pm

    Your Comments I have been running for about 3 years now, and the past 4months or so (maybe longer) the left side of my bum gets so tight that i get a pain going part way down from my bum to my hamstring and almost feels like dead weight, especially if I’m on the road and have to step up onto a curb with my left leg sometimes i can barely do it. I see my chiropractor every 2 weeks but not sure what else to do

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    For 2 near 3 months been suffering from crippling pain left buttocks down throughout calves and ankles. I visited doctors, chiropractor. Medicine healer (lol).. anything just to alleviate the frustrating crippling pain. Only to be prescribed narcotic meds, muscle relaxers, ibuprofen 800 after numerous of spine/xray test…ouch! I’ve asked the question how did I get this: usually med experts say I’m getting older ,,my skeleton is reducing etc. I’m 40 …it’s suppose to be my yay year of continue events I had set. My 1st triathlon and adding 2more marathons to my usual number of 4per year. Now so far due to the burden of this pain, I didn’t Triathlon… I .missed my 4usual marathon…and most likely next rewarding 2. I stretch… been corestrengthening .. I workout in a pool and elliptical machine to not over stress any muscle I do Tuesdays. Then one day I went for my usual run, near mile7 my buttock started to feel indifferent … a bit of a pain. Next day I was suffering from stronger pains in buttock… so I gave myself a rest day with stretches/ core workout. The day that followed the pain radiated down my entire left leg…crippling pain I have never experienced. It started to become uncomfortable to sit.bend, use the bathroom,workout, run… I just believed it go away in a few days if I rest… so I did rest but that’s it RESTING: was the problem. So began visiting doctors…frustrating pain in tow. I was shot up with steroids to make me comfortable yet it last 2_3 hours. Next was the painkillers non got rid of the pain…it usually left the pain at about a 5 (what I call now ..normal pain).. but after 6hours the meds potion fades then the excruciating crippling pain has me crucified. So it’s been close to 3months now that this pain and I are at war! I’ve been doing my own homework because I cannot just keep popping NSAIDs, Painkillers (..actually I stop w.the narcotic pain killers).. imnot thrilled about the side effects or condition how popping painkillers can disrupt organ function… further giving me another area of problems. Besides I’ve been becoming sleepy.. dry throat/lips..nauseas etc.. that I know is due to painkiller dependency. I don’t want that so lately I’ve consumed about a lot less painkillers even if the pain is still there. It’s been heartbreaking and frustrating how my body just transformed from a strong motivated gym goer/ avid runner to WEAKNESS! When I see other runners I cringe. So besides crying I’m gonna keep the faith …the runner in me.. motivation to get myself back to pain just feels free to open up and share because it’s a running thing . I have been going to physical therapy, massages, I still put in workout not like the hard workout I want (could) … I hope other runners and gym goers read this and be warned :stretch DONT OVER DO IT BUT STILL BELIEVE YOU CAN GET BACK YOUR STRIDE, YOUR COMFORT, YOUR RYTHYM!! I’m glad also there is a name to the burden (piriformis syndrome via sciatica pain).

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  • By Fred, February 18, 2016 @ 10:08 pm

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  1. Running and Sciatica — January 30, 2015 @ 9:02 am