One of my patients woke up the other day with pain that started on one side of her lower back and radiated down her hip, hamstring and into the side of calf. She told me this while I was making pancakes on Saturday morning for our kids. My wife is my number one patient so I’m writing this blog post for her. I know that many of you suffer from some degree of pain radiating down a leg as well. My goal with this blog post is to teach you a few simple strategies to ease these symptoms.
Let’s start by defining sciatica. It’s actually an umbrella term describing pain that radiates along the course of the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is a huge nerve that starts in the lower back. It comes together and courses down the hip, through the hamstring and then branches into two other nerves at the height of the knee. If you’ve ever sat on something hard like a wallet for too long on one side, you may have experienced some short term sciatica.
What sciatica is and what causes sciatica are two separate things. Sciatica itself is the pain/irritation you feel down the leg. The cause of sciatica can be a number of different things.
First, it could be coming from your lower back. This could be due to a bad disc herniation, poor movement at the small joints in the lower back, lack of mobility in the hip and even prolonged positional pressure like sitting on a plane to Australia.
Because of the many varying causes for sciatica, my goal is to give you a number of different self-management options. We’ll cover three different areas where you could improve and ease much of the sciatica that you do experience.
These areas are:
Step 1: Easing sciatica issues by getting out of positions that cause increased symptoms
This seems blatantly obvious to most people. The reality is that many people stay in pain producing positions for extended periods of time.
For instance, let’s take a traditional office-based job. Sciatica can be irritated with prolonged sitting, especially in a very flexed position. This puts the lower back into a flexed or rounded position. Because of this forward flexed position, the discs (think shock absorbers) of the lower back had additional stress placed on them throughout the day.
Take a look at the picture below. This shows the amount of pressure on the discs of the lower back in different positions. You can see that sitting in a forward flexed position increases the amount of pressure on the discs by 85% compared to standing. Even sitting in a good position increases the pressure by 40%.
What this shows us is your best option is to stand more, if possible. Even better, stand up and walk around more. Walking is like spraying WD-40 on the joints of the lower back and hips. Getting a standing desk is a good option for most people. They are becoming much more common in workplaces and even in schools. Stand Up Kids is a great reference for some of the other health benefits to getting a stand up desk.
If you are stuck sitting at a desk and you notice your back feels better when you stand, a lumbar roll may be a good option for you. These are firm rolls that are placed at the height of the lower back. They block the user into a more upright sitting position and deter much of the slouching that we see when people sit at a desk all day. You can also make yourself one of these pretty easily. Just get a gym towel, roll it up tight and duct tape around the roll. That’s it. It may not look as cool but it works.
Step 2: Easing sciatica issues by adding in self-mobility work to muscles in the lower back and hips
Let’s go over two areas you can start working on daily to help ease pain down the leg. For all of these areas our dosage is this: perform them twice a day, two minutes each technique per side. For all three techniques it should take you about 8-10 minutes with transitioning from one exercise to the next.
The first muscle is the quadratus lumborum. We’ll just call this muscle the QL because the actual muscle name sounds like a Harry Potter spell. The QL is a muscle that is one either side of the lower back and connects from the rib to the lower back to the pelvis. This muscle can refer pain down into the back of the hip region and is notorious for being irritated in people who sit all day or lack strength in their trunk.
The second muscle is actual a group of muscles. We call it the lateral hip complex but it includes fibers from the gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus, gluteus medius and deep rotators like the piriformis. These muscles, in particular the piriformis get blamed for much of the sciatica people experience. We’ll catch a little bit of all of these muscles with this one technique.
Step 3: Working on improving control of the lower back and hips
This step is often the one that people skip over. This is especially true if someone gets pain relief with some of the mobility techniques or a passive treatment like dry needling or massage. Controlling your own body is massively important. I love the saying, “Strength is never a weakness,” and it’s true in this case. Here are two techniques to get some control back in the right areas.
The first thing we want to do is account for a huge area of dysfunction in almost every patient I see. That area is breathing! I know, you’re obviously breathing if you’re alive and reading this article. Just because you’re breathing doesn’t mean that you haven’t started doing it in a compensated way. We take an astounding 20,000 breaths per day. Many of us who have had issues with sciatica or lower back pain tend to breath in a dysfunctional pattern.
The main dysfunctional pattern I see in my patients is chest breathing. These are the individuals that just raise their rib cage and shoulders every time they breath. What they neglect to use is the diaphragm to initiate the breath movement. This can happen for a number of reasons but for the purpose of this article let’s just leave it as something we want to try to correct.
Below is a breathing exercise you can start using to correct this problem. Try and get 5-8 minutes of this breathing drill in per day. You can break it up into 1-2 minute bouts or get the whole 5-8 minutes in at once if you want.
The last exercise you can add in is to help develop some control in extension between your lower back and hips. This is an exercise called the banded bird dog and it requires a significant amount of stability/control. It also connects the hip with the shoulder on the opposite side. This is very important because we function so much in rotational patterns. Think about throwing a ball. If you’re throwing with your right arm then your plan leg is your left leg.
This diagonal control is very important for the lower back and controlling torque through the spine. Getting strong in this pattern is one of the best ways to create long term function and decrease the likelihood of sciatica issues.
Try and do 3 sets to form fatigue with as much rest in between sets as you need. Form fatigue is when you can’t perform a perfect repetition anymore.
If you’re like me you probably read the highlighted bullet points and then you’ll read this last paragraph (I call it efficient reading!). Let’s go ahead and summarize everything and make sure we’re clear on what to do.
First, get out of positions that cause sciatica. Move to a standing desk if possible and if not get up and move around as much as you can. Next, start working on mobility to areas that can be problematic for sciatica. This includes the QL and the lateral hip. Last, start getting some control back in your hips and lower back. Control and strength in these areas will be a huge benefit to you in any physical activity you chose to do.
Give this stuff a try for a week or two. If you feel like you’re not making progress or are ready to get some one on one help, we can help. We help people just like you get back to running, golf, tennis, CrossFit and cycling without sciatic pain. Check out our testimonials pain to see what others have to say about the work we do. Stop avoiding activities because of pain, get some help and get back out there.
- Dr. Danny, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS
Dr. Danny and staff's views on performance improvement, injury prevention and sometimes other random thoughts.