Butt out, you buttinsky! My accidental remedy for sciatica / by sylvia kronstadt

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Registered: 03-14-2011
Butt out, you buttinsky! My accidental remedy for sciatica / by sylvia kronstadt
Wed, 07-24-2013 - 4:46am

    Does anyone else find the thought of sciatica kind of embarrassing? Do you think of funny old folks in the 1950s, griping about their rheumatism, their bunions, their corns and carbuncles, warts and bursitis, their impacted bowels and ill-fitting dentures?

    I got hit with sciatica on my left side when I was in my thirties. I was a weight-lifter, and a jogger, who was outside before dawn, stomping along to "Pretty Fly for a White Guy." I was very fly for a white girl! Way too fly for sciatica! I was pissed off, and determined to rid myself of this stupid, unfair affliction. 

    Thirty years later, after having tried every remedy I could find, I still had it, only now it was on both sides.

    About six months ago, I stumbled upon a remedy that has worked magic for me -- and it's free. Maybe it's a fluke. But I feel compelled to share it, just in case it's helpful to others.

I was in the searing grip of this big, bad, sadistic nerve.

     I waited as long as I did to write about this to see if my "remission" continued. It has. I didn't want to mislead anyone, or raise false hopes. Indeed, the method that worked for me may only help some people, and it's possible that no one else will experience the relief that I have.

    The most reputable web sites inform us that an estimated 20 percent of the nation's millions of back patients suffer from sciatica, a debilitating condition that causes sharp pain, tingling, weakness and numbness, originating in the lumbar and sacral spine, moving through the buttock and groin, extending down the back of the leg and often into the foot. 

    The sciatic nerve is the longest and largest of all the body’s nerves (it can be as wide as your thumb). Each sciatic nerve is made up of five smaller nerves that branch into the thigh, knee, calf, ankle, and foot. Sciatica occurs when this nerve is compressed, irritated, or inflamed. 

    Sciatica, the experts say, usually resolves on its own within a few weeks.

When you sit down, your butt screams bloody murder.

     But you'd never know that based upon the online message boards, which are filled with tales of unabated misery and pleas for advice from people who have been in chronic pain for years.

    And a multimillion-dollar industry has burst forth to address the persistent debility caused by sciatica. Hordes of desperate people have tried one doctor-recommended remedy after another -- many of them very expensive and time-consuming -- and have gotten no relief. Quack cures, that are advertised on TV and the Internet -- including pills, salves and newly invented devices -- become irresistible to those whose lives are so limited by sciatic pain. 

    Physical therapists, hypnotherapists, yoga instructors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, massage therapists, and "pain specialists" aggressively advertise remedies that often involve repeated visits over weeks or months, and frequently fail. Gurus who preach about the mind-body connection offer sessions in meditation, stress reduction, "spiritual realignment," and overall mindful living. New clinics are popping up that offer laser, ultrasound, trigger-point treatments and various magical "wraps" that infuse your back with healing herbs or vapors. 

Don't let the fanciful design fool you. It's a bitch!

     I'm sure that some of these approaches help some people. Many of those who provide the treatments are well-meaning and well-trained. But in my experience, a lot of them view their practices as highly efficient money machines, and they know damn well that their patients often -- if not usually -- are not going to achieve any benefit. A number of these treatments are not covered by insurance, and some aren't recognized as "safe and effective" by the FDA.

    As soon as I realized I had developed sciatica, I conscientiously researched it, and began doing everything the experts advised. I was determined to rid myself of this condition, which I thought the good lord (or whomever) had dumped on me by mistake. 

"What have I done to deserve this?" (The Pet Shop Boys, 1987)

    It didn't make sense that someone with my youth and lifestyle should be dealing with this stupid handicap, but nothing I did gave me any relief. 

     I spent hours on heating pads and ice packs. Every morning and evening, I did the recommended "poses" and stretches, some of which did momentarily ease the pain of my two herniated discs, but had no effect on the sciatica (actually, they seemed to inflame it). I developed a profound relationship with a deeply tortured chiropractor, but even he acknowledged that we weren't making any progress. 

Cauda equina, named for a horse, takes you out of the saddle.

    I was referred to a neurosurgeon after I developed numbness in my groin, which an orthopedist feared might be cauda aquina, a nerve-impingement condition that can lead to a permanent loss of bowel and bladder control. In men, it can cause impotence. She readily determined that I did not have this condition and dismissed me without any advice on how to cope with the numbness. A $3,000 injection of cortisone into my spine -- which was a last resort for me -- had no effect whatsoever on the misery that affected the entire bottom half of my body. 

    Those with sciatica are encouraged by web sites such as the Mayo Clinic to exercise -- particularly walking and stationary biking -- and it never occurred to me to decrease my activity level, but exercise did not alleviate my pain. The worst part for me was that I could not sit comfortably, since the inflamed nerves extend through the buttocks. It was excruciating just to have dinner and watch the news. My feet were so numb much of the time that standing (or running) were pure misery. I felt as if I were on stumps. Obviously, this can wreak havoc on your quality of life.

Numb feet make you feel stomping mad.

    I was also extremely upset that the sciatica, which for years now has extended down both legs, pretty much ended a stretching regimen that I had enjoyed for 40 years. I was told that I should never again bend forward from the waist. ("If you need to pick something up off the floor, squat.")

    The centerpiece of my stretching involved bending forward and down, touching the floor with the palms of my hands, and pressing my head against my knees.

When you're doubled over, you feel twice as good.

    I also clasped my hands behind my back and bent over, bringing my arms all the way over my head. I sat on the floor, with my legs extended, grasped my feet with both hands, and brought my head down to my knees. I did a number of yoga poses that involved bending and twisting.

I loved this. It freaked people out.

     I was proud of my flexibility. I believed I had established and persevered with a regimen that would help me maintain strength and functionality as I aged. I also loved the sensation of these stretches, which had always felt to me like something my body was supposed to do. I achieved a sense of euphoria as my muscles lengthened and loosened. My endorphins were released even more by stretching than they were by jogging.

Every part of you is on fire, in a good way, when you stretch like this.

    I felt quite devastated when I had to give this up after four decades. I devised some alternative stretches that didn't violate the doctors' advice, but they were never remotely as rewarding or useful as my former routine.

    So when I found a way -- totally by serendipity -- to relieve my sciatica, I was ecstatic.

     Briefly, here's how it unfolded: I tore the cartilage in my knee a year ago, and was unable to jog for some time. In order to maintain my cardiovascular fitness, and my leg strength, I began walking on a treadmill, with the incline turned all the way up.

    Before this, I had never used my treadmill except when air quality was too poor to jog outside, and I had never gotten the incline over 6.5. Most of the time I had it at 3.5 to 5. I had no desire to mess around with the incline.

It was an uphill battle, but I reached the mountaintop!

    But in this situation, I cranked it up to 10, so that I could get a good, challenging workout for my heart and lungs, even though I was walking rather than running. I swung my arms, bent at the elbow, to increase my exertion and also to help me maintain my straight-ahead trajectory.

    Striding briskly "uphill" certainly does the trick. I was red-faced, breathless and sweaty -- my favorite condition.

    At first, walking at such an extreme incline really hurt my back -- not the lumbar area, where I usually ache, but rather in the thoracic area, above my waist. I was very dismayed that I might not be able to continue.

    I found that if I stood up very (very) straight, tightened my abdominal muscles, tucked in my butt, lifted my chest (way up) and held my shoulders back (way back), the sharp pain in my mid-back  resolved quickly. The posture I adopted to accomplish this reminded me of the extreme bearing you see in beauty pageants, or on "Dancing with the Stars."


Suck it in and stick 'em out. That's what it's all about!

    I really proffered my boobs, as if they were broiled game hens on a serving platter, and pulled my deltoids way back and down. My head was held high. There is no way I would do this in public, so it's a good thing I've got a treadmill in the basement.

    Before long The Great Thing happened. I think I had been doing the treadmill workout for about two weeks when I realized that my sciatica was essentially gone. 

    There was no shooting pain down my legs. My feet were no longer numb. Quite joyfully, I plunged back into my former stretching regimen. I could tell immediately that the treadmill workouts had not just resolved the sciatica -- they had also strengthened my hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps and abdominals. The stretching felt so beautiful! The dog known as "moi" could downward-face once more!

At last, my butt was back up in the air, where it belongs.

    I assume that the treadmill work provided me with something akin to traction, as well as stimulating the fascia in the lumbar area and perhaps providing some lubrication. But I had tried conventional traction before, and while it felt great, it had no effect on the sciatic inflammation. I think there is something about the combination of the treadmill incline, the controlled posture and the exertion of walking (firm, defiant, determined) that enabled things, at long last, to click.

    I would be so happy if this experience proved helpful to others who are at their wits' end from the scourge of sciatica. Please let me know if you have a helpful outcome.

    I guess I'd be derelict if I didn't remind you to consult your doctor first. He'll probably tell you not to do it, though. Mine did. 

    Consider becoming the boss of your own body and giving it a try. Good luck.

iVillage Member
Registered: 09-02-2008

How interesting. How quickly did you notice results?

iVillage Member
Registered: 03-14-2011
i'm sorry i didn't see your question earlier. I think it was a couple of weeks. I'm still doing my usual stretches, too, despite two herniated discs that are almost chronically inflamed. I hope you will find relief. sylvia