Stop stretching your sciatica

Sciatica? Stop Stretching!

Have you ever felt a sudden onset of pain in the butt, hamstring or down the calf? Maybe it even felt like burning or tingling? Your back may hurt too, and getting up from sitting feels brutal. Your first instinct to to try to stretch your legs, and it actually feels worse! Unfortunately, you may be experiencing sciatica. Sciatica is one of the most common conditions we treat in our clinic, so don't worry, we're here to help!

What is Sciatica, Anyway?

Sciatica is irritation of a nerve root in the spine that can cause pain, burning, numbness, and/or tingling down one or even both legs. It often includes back pain (but not always). This irritation in the spine is typically caused by one of three things.

Disc bulge/herniation: It's one of the most common injuries of the spine and occurs when the jelly-like structures between your spinal bones, known as vertebrae, becomes damaged. This can occur traumatically, such as in a car accident or fall, or more commonly, through degeneration over time. The disc then pushes into one of the spinal nerves and causes irritation.

Spinal stenosis: This is when the spinal canal, the long hollow space where your spinal cord lives, becomes narrower. Your spinal cord travels all the way from the top of your spine at the brain, to the base of the spine, above your tailbone. Along this pathway it travels through 24 individual bones of the spine, forming the spinal canal. Arthritis and disc degeneration can cause this space to narrow, squeezing the spinal cord and irritating it.

Piriformis syndrome: This is actually pretty rare, and most people who think they have it actually have a disc bulge. The Cleveland Clinic says that piriformis syndrome only accounts for about 0.3% of sciatica cases. The piriformis is a small muscle in the hip and in some instances can squeeze the sciatic nerve after it exits the spine. If you're actually experiencing piriformis syndrome, Active Release Technique is a great way to release the nerve, and is done here in our office.


Diagram of the sciatic nerve

Why is Stretching Bad?

Since leg pain is often one of the primary symptoms of sciatica, your first instinct may be to try to stretch the calves or hamstrings. After all, isn't that what often helps when you strain a muscle? Well, this would be wrong and one of the worst things you can do! This isn't a muscle strain, or even caused by muscles at all. This is a nerve problem. Stretching your nerves makes them very angry.

In fact, this is a common scenario play out every week: a new patient schedules an appointment at our office. When asked about when the symptoms started, they say that they started feeling shooting or burning pain down the leg a couple days ago. They tried stretching which only made the symptoms worse. Then, the pain was so bad that they visited an urgent care facility. The urgent care facility prescribed them muscle relaxers, and even after taking the medication, it did nothing for their pain! As we just said, this isn't a muscular problem so of course a muscle relaxer won't help.

So, What's the Solution?!

Instead, we want to perform a different type of exercise, called nerve flossing. How is it different than stretching? When you stretch something, let's say an elastic band as an example, you are pulling the ends of the band in opposite directions at the same time. You're attempting to making the band longer. Now, imagine flossing your teeth. You're pulling the floss in one direction, then pulling it in the other. You're not pulling from both directions at the same time and trying to stretch the floss. The same concept applies to our nerves. Stretching an irritated nerve causes more pain. We want to move the nerve freely in each directions without applying tension. Check out this exercise below for one of the ways I like to floss the sciatic nerve.

If you think you've been experiencing sciatica, it's important to make sure you have the right diagnosis so you can get the right treatment. As we discussed in this article, doing the wrong treatment can actually make symptoms worse. By making an appointment at Tidal Chiropractic you can be sure that you will have a professional of musculoskeletal health assess your condition and make sure you are on the path to full recovery. Call or book online to start getting relief today.