Your Health

Could stretching actually be making your sciatica worse?

People who suffer from sciatica are often told to stretch their hamstrings or their piriformis to relieve the tightness and get rid of pain. But certain sciatica stretches not only don’t work, they also can be quite harmful.

A client of mine, Susan, 47, had been suffering from what she believed to be hip pain for many months. Because of all the time she spends working at her desk and driving/commuting, she could literally feel her hips getting tighter and stiffer by the day.

She knew she needed to start exercising again, so she enrolled in a local gym, took fitness classes and, after a few months, started to feel like her old self. But that nagging hip pain never went away and in fact began to get worse.

“It feels like a toothache in the back of my leg that shoots all the way down into my hamstring,” Susan said.

Susan’s pain persisted for seven months. When she finally went to the doctor, all he told her to do was to “just keep stretching.”

But now, not only could she not exercise, even doing simple things such as sitting for longer than 20 minutes, brushing her teeth and getting out of bed in the morning were becoming very painful.

It turns out Susan was actually suffering from a herniated disc (also known as a slipped disc or bulging disc), which was placing pressure on her sciatic nerve.

This pain is tricky, because it is known to mask itself as a tight glute muscle or a hamstring strain – but it isn’t.

Why does this happen? Because forward bending activities such as sitting, bending improperly and stretching your hamstrings are all part of the same posture and movement that create more pressure on the discs in the back. Over time, it can cause more wear and tear and make the injury worse.

Relieving pain

So if you shouldn’t stretch your hamstrings, what should you do to relieve the pain or tightness?

In Susan’s case, she eventually recovered by simply avoiding all forward bending movements and postures such as sitting, doing crunches and stretching her hamstrings, and instead doing movements and exercises that were opposite to what she had been doing, including:

• Stretching her quad muscles (the muscles in the front of her leg, opposite to the hamstrings).

• Taking frequent walking breaks at work. Susan wasn’t able to sit for longer than 20 minutes anyway. She found that when she stood and moved more often she was in less pain and more productive.

• Getting proper core training.

Rather than focusing on the symptom of hamstring and hip tightness, we were able to find and fix the root cause of her sciatica, which required taking a big-picture look at her entire body.

Have you been suffering with sciatica for longer than two months and wondered if anything can fix it besides stretching, painkillers or surgery? Register for PhysioFit’s Low Back Pain & Sciatica Workshop, scheduled April 25, to learn how to naturally heal back pain and sciatica for good.

Kim Gladfelter is owner, physical therapist and Pilates instructor at PhysioFit Physical Therapy and Wellness, 1000 Fremont Ave., Suite 108, Los Altos. For more information, call 887-6046 or visit physiofitpt.com

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