It’s 8:00 am. You roll over in bed hoping today will be different. Maybe today the agony will subside and you will be free of the experience of pain. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and getting out of bed presents the same challenges.
Though it may not seem like it, sciatica is something you can recover from. Read on to explore what may be contributing to your pain and how you can begin managing it.
Why am I feeling electric shocks down my leg?
Sciatica broadly refers to the experience of pain in the lower back, buttocks, hips or leg. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body, beginning in the pelvis and travelling down the back of the leg to the bottom of the foot.
This pain experience may be related to irritation of the sciatic nerve. Think of this nerve as a lifeguard – it is constantly on the lookout for signs of danger in its area.
When danger is sensed, the sciatic nerve sends a “danger message” up the spinal cord to the brain where the information is processed. This processing determines how your body responds to the danger signal.
Building on the lifeguard analogy, imagine if the lifeguard saw a child drowning earlier and is now on high alert all day, ready to dive in at any moment instead of relaxing on the stand, confident that the pool will run itself safely.
Understanding this is important because the experience of pain is related both to what is happening at the level of the nerve, your current thoughts and emotions, and also to past experiences and future expectations.
Now, imagine that your body is a child at that lifeguard’s pool excited to play, swim, and have fun. As the child starts to splash and play, the lifeguard (the sciatic nerve) who on another day may have let the splashing happen, is now hyper vigilant to ensure everyone stays safe.
She proceeds to blow her whistle - limiting play even though everyone is safe. Similarly, when pain persists, movements that are generally safe for your body to do such as bending or coughing, may elicit the experience of pain because of the same sort of hyper vigilance on the part of the sciatic nerve.
Stop sciatica in its tracks
Conquering this condition will require diligence and deviation from your normal routine, but it is doable. Consider the following two steps as the first on your journey to managing your pain experience.
There is no one size fits all solution but these strategies can start you moving in the right direction.
Step 1: awareness and acceptance
Sciatica can be like rushing to get somewhere with untied shoelaces. You have two options: ignore your laces and power on (ignoring the tripping hazard or danger signal) or you can bring your awareness to your laces and accept that it is better to stop and tie them to ensure you get where you are going safely.
In the face of pain experiences, many of us use the ignore approach which sadly often results in aggravation of the pain and further limits our ability to do what we want to do.
If we became aware of the danger signal instead, we can begin to accept where we are limited and take appropriate steps to overcome those limits.
Keeping a pain diary is one way to build awareness of the pain and how it interacts with and impacts different aspects of our lives.
This awareness and acceptance will also help to track the small victories in your recovery, building momentum to keep the ball rolling in the right direction which leads us to step 2!
Step 2: set goals
Once you become aware of your body’s danger signals and accept them, it is time to take steps to remedy the problem. A great way to start putting one foot in front of the other in a sustainable way is goal setting!
When setting a goal, it is valuable for it to be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely (SMART is a great acronym to remember all of these qualities).
Take some time on a lazy Sunday or on a break during your work day to write up goals for yourself that will help keep you on track. For example, some people may start by taking a daily walk to get some fresh air and move their body.
To begin, take note of how far you can go today while being aware and accepting of the danger messages your body may send. An example of a SMART goal may be to increase your walking distance by 100 meters in two weeks from today.
This article laid the foundation for understanding sciatica using stories to describe what is happening in the body while giving some general advice to get started on the path to managing your pain experience. The next article focuses on practical tips and therapeutic movements to help you tame sciatica. Check it out!
This blog was written by Sam Grossman - a Physiotherapy student at Queen's University.