WHAT IS SCIATICA?
There are two sciatic nerves – the longest nerves in the body – that run from the lower spine all the way down each leg. When the sciatic nerve gets pinched it causes “sciatica”, or pain to radiate down one side of the leg. The most common cause is a herniated disc, although there can be other causes.
Unfortunately, sciatica is very common and according to Harvard Health, as many as 40% of people will experience sciatica during their lifetime.
WHAT ARE TREATMENT OPTIONS?
While everyone is different, there are some proven treatments that can help relieve sciatica. If the pain is excruciating, it can help to lie on the floor for short periods, stretching the spine long. However, it is important to stay active and prolonged bed rest or sitting does not help sciatica.
Sitting increases pressure on the spinal discs. Over the counter pain medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen may help relieve inflammation in the short-term, but medications only mask the underlying problem.
While there is limited evidence-based research on methods that relieve sciatica and lower back pain, there is a new consumer based social network called Health Outcome, which captures patient outcome data for various health issues/treatments. The founder, Ofer Ben-Shachar, suffered a leg injury in the 1990s. When his doctor recommended surgery, he requested data to see how effective the surgery really was, but there was very little data available.
Ben-Shachar agreed to the surgery, but unfortunately the outcome was not positive and it took him five years to be able to drive a car again. A group of Stanford University researchers recently published an article about Health Outcomes, which notes that postural reform and yoga are the top-rated patient treatments for low back pain.
In addition, Boston Medical University recently published a study, in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Study participants were randomly divided into three groups: yoga classes every week for 3 months, 15 visits with a physical therapist or education (self-help book/newsletters).
The yoga group continued practice at home for another 9 months and the physical therapy had sessions every 2 months or did exercises at home for 9 months. The results showed that a gentle yoga practice is just as effective for easing back pain as physical therapy.
WHAT ARE THE BEST YOGA POSES FOR SCIATICA AND BACK PAIN?
If the source of the sciatica is a herniated disc, it is important to start with gentle poses that will align, lengthen and strength the lower back. Yoga poses that stretch the hamstring, such as reclining hand-to-to (Supta Padangusthasana) using a strap, are especially helpful to relieve sciatica.
Other gentle poses include: child’s pose; cat-cow; baby cobra; knees to chest; supine pigeon; and standing psoas release (using a block or book), among others. If the source of sciatica is due to a tight piriformis muscle, simple spinal twist poses, such as Half Lord of the Fishes (Ardha Matsyendrasana) may be helpful.
MASSAGE AND BODYWORK
In addition to the physical yoga poses, massage and bodywork can be greatly beneficial in relieving sciatica pain. Although the piriformis and other “deep 6” muscles are located underneath the glutes and can be challenging for a massage therapist to access, it is possible – and there are many other supportive techniques that can be employed.
Thai massage in particular is effective in releasing tension in the piriformis, low back, hamstrings, glutes, IT band and other tissues that cause / contribute to sciatica.
Sara has practiced yoga for over 15 years and has been teaching yoga since 2014. After a 25-year career in international public health, Sara began a second career as a Certified Holistic Health Coach. Her passion for food led her to yoga when she began studying the connection between mindfulness and stress eating. Sara emphasizes alignment and posture in all her classes.
Her flow classes, which are fun and energetic, focus on lengthening the spine and improving balance and strength. Sara’s yin classes focus on pranayama (breath work) and deep relaxation. When she’s not on the mat, Sara can be found in the kitchen creating new recipes from locally sourced ingredients, or out exploring the hills of Western NC on a bicycle.