The widest, longest nerve in your body runs all the way from your hip down your leg to your foot. It is known as the sciatic nerve and it actually forms from the merging of 5 different nerves in your lower back – the first through third sacral nerves, and the fourth and fifth lumbar nerves. The sciatic nerve and smaller nerves which branch off of it supply feeling and sensation to parts of the hips, buttocks, legs, and feet.
What is Sciatica?
The commonly referred to condition, sciatica, captures any pain or discomfort associated with impingement or damage to the sciatic nerve or its numerous branches. Sciatica typically only affects one side of the body, however, the pain can range from mild and short-lived to debilitating and long-lasting. Common causes of sciatica include:
Herniated disk – when the disk-shaped cushion padding the spaces in between vertebrae in the lumbar spine actually bulges out of its casing, a herniated disc forms (also called a bulging or ruptured disk). This injury can apply pressure to the sciatic nerve and cause radiating back and leg pain.
Spinal stenosis – when the space in the spinal canal and nerve roots narrows over time due to a buildup of bone spurs, osteoarthritic degeneration, or simple wear and tear, the sciatic nerve can become unnecessarily compressed.
Tight piriformis muscle – the piriformis muscle is located deep in the buttocks behind the gluteus maximus, and the sciatic nerve runs directly beneath it (or through it in some cases). If the muscle becomes tight or spasms, it can push on the sciatic nerve and cause pain and weakness.
Other causes of sciatica may include rare cases of diabetes, cancer, or other serious medical conditions which compress or damage nerves.
Exercising with Sciatica
Sciatica symptoms can range from dull aches and numbness to tingling, burning, radiating pain, intense pressure, or weakness that makes standing difficult. You may feel these sensations in your lower back, your hips, buttocks, all the way down your leg. This not only makes daily living harder but can negatively impact your exercise routine as well. Wondering how to relieve sciatic back pain?
When it comes to working out and staying physically active, keep these quick tips in mind:
Avoid overhead lifting – if your weight training circuit focuses on lots of overhead lifting like with overhead or shoulder presses, you’ll want to restyle your routine to avoid sciatica pain. Overhead lifting exacerbates the pressure on your spine and shock-absorbing vertebrae disks and can lead to damage and nerve impingement. Exercises where you lay on your back with your legs flat can comparably strain the lower back and sciatic nerve.
Don’t overtrain – any experience with sciatica pain will have you nodding your head in agreement when it comes to the advice of avoiding overtraining. Excessive weight lifting or high-intensity interval training can lead to overuse injuries and damage to the lower back. Incorporate more cross-training days into your workout schedule where you switch up your stuffy gym routine for an outdoor hike, yoga class, or bike ride.
Practice good posture – practicing good posture both inside and outside the gym will help you strengthen core and back muscles to prevent damage to the spine and accompanying nerves. Avoiding prolonged periods of sitting, maintaining neutral spine alignment when running, playing sports, and exercising, and perfecting proper technique when lifting weights will go a long way in fortifying your body against sciatic nerve impingement or damage.
Use a sciatica brace – wearing a back brace for sciatica throughout your day and also when you work out can help apply compression to inflamed muscles, relieve pressure off the sciatic nerve, and offer extra support for the lumbar spine region.
Common risk factors for sciatica include being overweight, having a job which requires frequent heavy lifting, nerve-damaging conditions like diabetes, as well as age-related spinal conditions such as bone spurs and herniated disks. Experts recommend adjusting lifestyle habits to limit damage to the sciatic nerve as well as seeking medical attention right away for an injury or accident that results in pain in the lower back, hips, buttocks, or leg.