In this episode of the AMR Traveling TriggerPoint Ultimate 6 Kit, we're trying to find relief for Susan, a mother runner who is suffering from sciatica. She's already bailed on most of her races this fall, but is looking for her redemption marathon next spring...with the improvements she's already seen with just six weeks of the TriggerPoint releases, we're confident she'll be crossing 26.2 when the flowers start to bloom again.
What sciatica is: The official sounding diagnosis? Sciatic nerve pain due to disc degeneration of the lower lumbar spine.
Explanation, please: Each hard in the spine disc is surrounded by a jelly-like substance that absorbs shock to the spine. As the disc becomes worn over time or through injury, the jelly-like center can squeeze through the disc, resulting in spinal nerve pressure and inflammation, which can cause sciatica.
Sciatica begins with compression of a spinal nerve root in the lower back. When the nerve gets compressed and angry, you’ll feel it in varying degrees of pain and numbness in the glute and hip, as well as running down the back of the leg.
On a scale of 1 (band-aid, please) to 10 (ambulance, please), I'd rate this: Sciatica is a chronic condition for me: a nagging, ever-present discomfort. On the pain scale, I'd describe it as a 1 to 2. Often it feels better after a workout—I credit endorphins for that —but may bump up to a 4 or 5 following an intense workout.
What causes sciatica: Sitting for long periods of time. Bending at the waist. Lifting with your upper body, not your lower body. Poor posture. Aging. Basically, all of the standard activities that come with being a mom.
What sciatica feels like physically: Sciatic nerve pain feels pretty much like piriformis syndrome; it's just the cause is different. I have a nagging low-level pain in my glute, and it usually radiates down the back of my leg. Sometimes I also have a stiff, sore lower back. Ironically, when my back feels stiff the sciatic nerve pain abates. I can't win!
You might have sciatica if: Sciatica can be a squirrely one to diagnose. WebMD notes that, “Symptoms of sciatica include pain that begins in your back or buttock and moves down your leg and may move into your foot. Weakness, tingling, or numbness in the leg may also occur.”
If you're experiencing sciatica, it can be difficult to differentiate between disc degeneration and piriformis syndrome as the cause. You may or may not have lower back stiffness or pain. A physical therapist had me perform a series of range-of-motion exercises which led him to conclude it was sciatica, not piriformis syndrome, as I had self-dianognosed using Dr. Google. In my case, I feel at least a mild discomfort in my sciatic nerve on a daily basis; it isn't healed by taking a break from exercise. In fact, it often feels better after exercising.
I tend to feel it most when I’m sitting; long car rides and movie watching can be distracting experiences. When I can no longer sit still during an at home movie watching session, you’ll often find me on the floor using the Ultimate 6 Kit. True story!
When and how I roll: Ideally, before and after a workout, and a couple of hours before bedtime. Let's face it, though: it's pretty difficult to find that kind of time. The idea behind self myofascial release is that everything is connected, so you should work out all the knots rather than focusing on just the problem areas.
As someone who has dealt with her share of compensatory injuries, this makes sense to me. At least three times a week, I make it a point to do the entire series of manipulations in the accompanying Ultimate 6 manual, plus a few more I found on TriggerPoint Therapy's YouTube channel to target other problem areas.
As I'm a geek-by-marriage, my husband and I have been watching the original Star Trek series throughout the summer: Television watching is a great time to work through the manipulations, because it offers the added bonus of less time spent sitting, thus aggravating my back condition. If I only have a few minutes before a workout, I'll prioritize the manipulations: piriformis, hamstrings, thoracic, quads.
The TriggerPoint Massage Ball has been a revelation to me: in the past, I've used a tennis ball as a practically free alternative. I thought the massage ball would feel the same. It did not; it was much more effective. It felt as though I had never released the piriformis before, and I had to make sure to breathe deliberately through the manipulations. I felt immediate relief in my glute and sciatic nerve.
The goal with chronic sciatica is to keep the nerve pain from traveling down the leg: the closer you can keep it to the top of the leg and glute, the better. Since I've been using the massage ball, there are times I don't even notice sciatic discomfort. It's really convenient, too. It doesn't take more than a couple of minutes to roll out the tender spots, so there are times I'll use it more than once each day on the piriformis area. The more time I've spent using it, the fewer tight spots I have in my glutes and hips: after weeks of using it, sometimes it's harder to find tight spots to work on!
What else works physically: I've been working on strengthening my core muscles: lots of planks, lunges, and bridges. I stretch by doing several sets of hamstring glides and press ups. What also works is what I avoid: stretches and strength exercises that involve bending or folding at the waist can put an unnecessary strain on my lower back. At this point, I'm able to engage in the occasional yoga or Pilates class but if something doesn't feel right or I notice additional pain after, I stop doing it. One of my favorite strength exercises is a bent over dumbell row, but it's also at the top of my Exercises to Avoid list: one set, and I'll pay for it for several days.
If I feel like I'm overdoing it, I'll replace a run with a session of pool running. In fact, I try to do this on a regular basis because I think it's a great workout—even if it's much less fun than a run outside.
Limiting the time I spend sitting also helps, and I figure this is a good choice for overall health. I used to park myself at the dining room table or on the sofa while I used my portable computer: now, I’m more likely to be found in my “office” at the end of the kitchen counter.
How I'll avoid sciatica in the future: Well, it's not like disc degeneration is going to go away. Although I can't claim that I never slack on keeping up with stretching, strengthening and rolling, I'm pretty good about listening to my body and staying consistent in the big picture. I'm happy to say that I've been able to manage my sciatic and back discomfort so that it hasn't interfered with my running or worsened over time. Adding the TriggerPoint Ultimate 6 to my arsenal of tricks has lessened my discomfort, and I'm certain it's improved my hip mobility.
Have you had—or have—sciatica? What kinds of things bring you relief?