Sciatica is a pain in the butt, literally. Since having a baby, I feel fire dancing down my back, into my backside, and tingling in my legs whenever I turn over just a little too quickly. Far from a temporary inconvenience, this condition seems intent on sticking around: My "baby" is now almost 4 years old, and he recently had to play nurse when I suffered an attack that left me on the floor unable to move. Luckily, he managed to follow my instructions to grab the remote control, a pillow, blanket, and the phone to call Daddy.
Now that I’ve been initiated into the painful club of sciatica sufferers, I've become much more aware of just how prevalent it is: An estimated 40% of people will have sciatica pain at some point in their lives.
What is sciatica?
The sciatic nerve is the longest single nerve in the human body, and it runs all the way from the lower back down the back of each leg, says Dr Loren Fishman. While anyone can develop pain along this nerve for a variety of reasons (such as a slipped disc), it's fairly common among women during and after pregnancy.
For starters, weight gain can place pressure on the fragile nerves of the spine, says orthopaedic surgeon Dr Alfred Bonati. The sciatic nerve can also become irritated during childbirth itself, especially during long labors, when women experience so-called back labor, or when the baby is in an abnormal position (such as breech), according to research from the European Spine Journal. After childbirth, many moms are left with weakened back and abdominal muscles, which can lead to more pain. Poor posture and hunching—pretty common among those who are breastfeeding and cradling their baby—makes the problem even worse.
My son’s labour lasted a grueling 48 hours and involved long stretches of excruciating back labor. Once I was home, I didn’t pay too much attention to any aches and pains that I was experiencing. I was too busy taking care of my baby; plus, the pain was intermittent: I could go weeks without any symptoms, and then one day I'd bend down too quickly or move a certain way and be in agony. Sometimes I'd even end up "frozen" and unable to move without help, which was pretty frightening.
Shortly after my son's first birthday, it finally dawned on me that maybe this wasn't normal.
Is yoga the best Rx?
I started to research treatment options and found that the latest guidelines show pain meds aren't best for most patients with low-back pain—or at least that they shouldn't be relied upon as a first-line defense. Heat, massage, stretching, and yoga seem to do the trick for many people. Meanwhile, a study found that the practice can alleviate sciatic pain, at least in the short-term.
I’ve always loved yoga and had followed a prenatal routine throughout my pregnancy, but since my son's birth I had fallen out of the habit. I decided to try a few asanas and realised that any moves that helped me stretch my back or lie flat on the floor provided immediate relief.
After practicing on my own for a while, I decided it was time to talk to an expert. Tiffany Cruikshank, who works closely with doctors to create pain management plans involving yoga, confirmed that the practice can definitely ease lower back pain and help prevent flare-ups. To that end, she suggests the following moves, which release the tense muscles along the back and down the legs. Just be careful not to push yourself too far. "Find a comfortable position and soften into the pose," says Cruikshank. "If you experience any nerve pain, back out of the pose until the pain is gone.”
Ardha Matsyendrāsana (seated twist)
Sit on the ground cross-legged. Keep your left leg on the floor and cross your right leg over it, placing your right foot flat on the floor. Place your right hand to the floor behind you and use your left arm to hold onto your right leg. Lengthen your spine to sit up straight. As you exhale slowly, begin to twist to your right until you feel a gentle stretch. Take a few deep breaths and hold for at least 30 seconds, or up to 2 minutes if it feels good. Release slowly and repeat on the other side.
Start in a tabletop position with a flat back. Focus on drawing in your abdomen to support your back. Keep your spine and legs straight while you slowly extend one leg back behind you and the opposite arm forward. Elongate your body from heel to head as you take 3-5 deep breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Supta Padangusthasana (supine hamstring pose)
Lie on your back, bend your right knee into your chest, and place a strap around the sole of your right foot. Slowly extend your leg until you feel a gentle stretch through the back of the leg while keeping your lower back relaxed. Hold for 30-60 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Since I returned to a regular yoga practice, my sciatica has gotten much better. Of course, yoga isn't a cure-all: I also make an effort to walk a lot, get quality sleep and I use a posture trainer for 15 minutes every day. But now whenever I feel that familiar pain, I usually realise that it's been a few days or even a week since I've done yoga, and I make an extra effort to get back to the mat. Yes, the stretching aspect is key, but yoga also forces me to slow down, breathe, and focus on my needs—which is all pretty important.