Understanding Sciatica, It’s Causes & Exercises

Issue 1

Sciatica is one of the conditions which often leads to the greatest amount of confusion in the eyes of the sufferer. It’s understandable why this is, as the pain clearly is not where the origin of the problem is. For this reason it is one of the conditions which requires the most explanation and education. 

What Is Sciatica:

True Sciatica is pain along the entire length of the sciatic nerve, this is fortunately much less common. Instead many people suffering from “sciatica” are more accurately suffering from sciatic-type leg pain. This is a referral of pain from an injury in the lower lumbar spine, L4, L5, S1 region, into a specific part of the lower body, via nerve fibers that are running as part of the sciatic nerve. We could get into the fact that the signal actually isn’t in the nerve in the leg, and actually is in the nerve root, spinal cord and brain only, but that might just be a little too much detail for today.

What Causes Sciatica:

A detail that is so frequently missed in the cases of sciatica, is that it is caused by something, it itself is not the cause. Unlike a broken leg, or slipped disc. Next time you think of sciatica, just think “leg pain” and that will naturally prompt you to ask the follow up question: what is causing my sciatica? The causes of this can be many but a nice catch all would be some form of injury to the lower lumbar spine, perhaps associated with build up of excessive inflammation in the region where the nerve roots exit the spinal column “exit foramina”. This could be, for example: slipped or herniated disc, ligament strain or facet joint injury to name but a few.

It is always good to remember however, that a major contributor to the symptoms of sciatic leg pain is inflammatory build up. Inflammation is a natural part of healing and necessary to help signal our immune system to come along and clear out damaged debri, as well as divert more nutrition to the injury site for healing. Unfortunately, in the case of the lower back, and spine in general we have an issue to contend with – the fact that these nerve roots, that go on to become the sciatic nerve, have to run through little bony holes. When our body is busy driving an inflammatory process in our lower back, this leads to these holes becoming completely full, this pressure builds up to an unsustainable degree, thus everything running through this bony hole gets squashed! 

You might call this a “trapped nerve”.

What Can You Do To Help Your Sciatic Leg Pain?

The first thing you need to appreciate is that many practitioners will diagnose sciatica, unfortunately ignorant to the explanation previously mentioned. Opting to put sciatica down to a cause in of itself – nerves don’t just randomly inflame. Alternatively they will put it down to a muscle that has randomly and for no particular reason become tight – the piriformis is a great example. If this were the case you’d be getting pain any time you vigorously contract a muscle – i.e. you’d be getting pain literally every day and would have been your whole life, sport of any kind would be completely out. Sounds a little silly doesn’t it…

The reason for mentioning the above is that knowing that there are errors in judgment when it comes to sciatica will be helpful when you see the exercises so readily prescribed. Exercises that include sciatic flossing, which we have a full video on here.

A big part of getting better is stopping doing the wrong things. Movements such as rounding the lower back and slouching, can often provide momentary relief, regrettably this only makes the underlying issues worse in so many cases. Conversely standing up tall can be a challenge and painful at first attempt. We’ll get to some specific tips to help later but let us first cover why this standing up right is good, but can be painful at first.

Why Good Posture Can Give You Sharp Sciatic Pain

Remember those little holes in the spine that the nerves come out of that we mentioned earlier. Well they change size based on the movements that we do. Think of the top and bottom half like two separate halves. They’re on the back part of our spine, and when we bend forward and round our back they move apart – creating more space, when we come back upright, they get smaller. When we arch our back like in a cobra position they move closer together. Hopefully you can see how this affects the size of the hole.

When you spend time sitting or slouched, the hole is therefore larger, and inflammation mentioned earlier is filling that hole. The moment you start trying to stand back upright the hole will move back to its normal size. The problem here is that all that extra inflammation that filled the larger hole has nowhere to go quickly and therefore in a matter of seconds you reduce the size of that hole by a significant amount. This isn’t a problem normally, but when there is extra “stuff” in there pressure builds rapidly giving you that pain!

We recently shot a video on standing upright with sharp pain which goes into a little detail about this and you can read and watch this here.

The reality is that we need to get the spine moving a little to help drain that excess inflammation and these extended sitting periods, even sleeping can allow this to get out of control. Being upright but bent over certainly makes the underlying back injury that’s causing your sciatic pain worse. 

Now for some of the tips to help…


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Tips To Help Avoid Your Sciatica Worsening:

  • Move regularly & avoid stillness:

You’re always going to feel bad getting moving after sitting for long periods, and a night sleep will commonly lead to sciatica being worse in the morning. We need you to sleep because that’s when healing takes place, but as for extended sitting during the day – limit it significantly. Instead try to keep moving, even if it is just around the house, 2-5 minutes of pottering around the house, getting your lower back moving slightly will help drain this excess inflammation and there’s no reason you cannot use the kitchen table or counter to give you a little support and help you into that upright position. It’s not easy to start but it will help!

  • Use your knees & hips:

By using your hips and knees when bending you can help keep your back as upright as possible, thereby decreasing the strain placed on the lower back. This will help with the healing process and the sooner the injury in your back starts to stabilize, and the out of control inflammation subside, the sooner you’ll find that symptoms in your leg are not quite so volatile.

  • Chill out – Icing your spine:

Heat only drives the inflammation process further and invariably makes you feel nice at the time and quickly degrades again! Instead, regular short bouts of icing for the Lower spine. Remember that L4, L5, S1 region we mentioned earlier? Right there, do NOT use the ice on your leg, we want the ice where the injury is. 3-5 minutes at a time will be perfect. You can repeat this multiple times, but you don’t want to do it for longer individual durations.


Video: Flossing For Sciatica

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