I’ve been asked whether it’s ok to run with sciatica several times recently, by different people so I thought I’d answer it in my #quickquestion series. Will running with sciatica make it worse? Could exercise make sciatica better? Should you just rest when you have sciatica? What’s on many runner’s minds is how long they will have to take off running with sciatica and whether sciatica means they might never run again.
Understanding what sciatica is helps to answer all of these questions and more so let’s start there.
What is sciatica?
The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in the body. We have one on each side. It leaves the spinal cord in the lower back and travels through the buttock, down the back of the thigh and calf and underneath the foot. Any damage to or squashing of the nerve causes symptoms of pain, tingling, numbness and sometimes weakness in the area of the nerve below the point that it is compressed. So, if it is squashed behind the knee, the symptoms will be in the calf and foot. Pain can feel like a dull tooth ache but shooting pain, especially on movement and in certain positions is frequent.
The most common site for the sciatica nerve to be compressed is at the spine. This leads to symptoms that can be felt right up and down the nerve anywhere from the lower back to the toes. It’s a common result of a ‘slipped disc’ where the gel like pouches that act as shock absorbers between our vertebrae, bulge out and squash the nerve at its root. You might feel some back pain but the main symptoms will be in your leg.
In this situation, it’s easy to see why you shouldn’t run. High impact exercise will put more pressure on to the bulging disc and therefore compress the sciatica nerve further. You need to allow time for the sciatica to resolve, this is usually around four to six weeks. This doesn’t mean you should rest completely though as gentle exercise and stretching is beneficial for back pain and sciatica. Keep active on and off throughout the day if you can.
Always see your doctor if:
- You cannot control your pain at home with simple pain killers
- Your pain isn’t settling after two weeks or is getting progressively worse
Get urgent medical attention from A and E if:
- You get sciatica, numbness or weakness down BOTH legs
- You pass urine or faeces without meaning to
- You are unable to pass urine
- You feel numb around your genitals or your back passage (anus).
It’s essential to make a gradual return to running after sciatica. Ideally this should be done with help from a physiotherapist to ensure full and successful rehabilitation. They will also identify underlying biomechanical issues that may have triggered the sciatica in the first place and advise you on steps you can take to minimise the risk of recurrence.
Sciatica does however have causes other than slipped discs. Piriformis syndrome is one. The sciatic nerve runs close to the piriformis muscle and if the muscle is tight, cramped or spasms, then the sciatic nerve can become compressed. This is common in runners, particularly those that do a lot of uphill running. Treatment centres on stretching the muscle. There are lots of videos online demonstrating piriformis stretches. Piriformis syndrome can take around four to six weeks to settle and it’s best not to run if it is causing discomfort. Avoiding too much sitting and making sure you have an upright posture when you do sit can help. Again, a physiotherapist assessment is very beneficial in identifying the cause of symptoms and directing treatment.
So, to summarise:
- Sciatica describes pain, tingling or numbness coming from the sciatic nerve anywhere along its course
- Sciatica doesn’t just come from a slipped disc
- Do not run if you have a slipped disc or if running aggravates pain from piriformis syndrome
- Input from a physiotherapist can be invaluable in getting a diagnosis and getting you back to running safely
- Watch for the warning signs of a more serious condition and get medical help
- Remember that generally being active helps back pain and bed rest is no longer advised
- Stay positive, with good rehabilitation and working to prevent relapses, sciatica doesn’t mean the end of your running journey.
Featured image: Gratisography
There are more answers to questions like these and lots of health information to help you lead a happy and active life in my book Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health. Published by Bloomsbury and awarded First Place in the Popular Medicine category at the British Medical Association Medical Book Awards 2018.
Disclaimer: I can’t give personal medical advice and as always with health advice, reading something online doesn’t replace seeing your doctor who knows your medical history and can assess you in person. So, if you are unsure then always seek the opinion of a health care professional.