My Sciatica Story: Learning to Cope with Low Back Pain

Writer Rosemary Black reflects on living and dealing with sciatica and what she’s learned from chronic pain.

Everyone in my family found a way to deal with stress when the pandemic hit. Yes, we all ate too many sugary carbs, but most of us also tried to exercise. Some ordered free weights or dusted off old stationary bikes. I started cleaning the house with enthusiasm, dragging my clunky, ancient vacuum cleaner up and down two flights of stairs, scrubbing and polishing and sweeping every surface. 

Writer Rosemary black is learning to live with sciaticaWriter Rosemary black is learning to live with sciatica.

All was going well and I was mentally congratulating myself on such a spotless home…until one morning in February 2021. Whether it was because of bending and twisting to get all the way under the beds or shoving around heavy furniture, I woke up in excruciating discomfort. The pain in my lower back radiated to my right hip and leg. I could hardly walk without limping, and getting in and out of a chair really hurt. 

What’s Causing My Lower Back Pain?

For the first couple of days, I tried to ignore it. I’d read that you aren’t supposed to stay in bed with back pain, so I vowed to keep walking on my treadmill each morning. Having written countless articles about living with various pain conditions, I self-diagnosed a pulled muscle that would get better in a day or two. But by day four, it was worse. I couldn’t even get out of bed, much less walk on the treadmill, without wincing. I made an appointment to see an orthopedist and was diagnosed with sciatica.  

As the doctor explained it, our spines are made up of two dozen bones called vertebrae, and in between each vertebra is a soft disc filled with a jelly-like substance. The vertebrae are cushioned and kept in pace by these soft discs. With age, though, the discs can degenerate and lose their ability to cushion. 

Mine were not only getting older, but they were getting irritated by all the abuse (housecleaning, mostly!) I’d been putting them through for the past year. An irritated disc can start to bulge, or herniate, which causes lower back pain. Sciatica, a form of radiculopathy (radiating pain), occurs when something—usually an irritated disc but could also be a bone spur or a tumor—presses down on the sciatic nerve, a very large nerve that travels through the buttocks and extends down the back of the leg. The result? Burning, shock-like pain and sometimes numbness and tingling in the lower back, leg and buttocks.

My doctor did an X-ray and said he didn’t see any obvious problems with my back or my right hip. He recommended physical therapy, which I started. On his advice, I stopped going on my treadmill. But the pain didn’t improve.  

Trying Various Sciatica Treatments

In addition to twice-weekly physical therapy, I started each morning doing the exercises the therapist recommended. These have unusual names like “side-lying bow and arrow stretch,” “clamshell,” and “lateral shift correction at wall.”  But they basically consist of gentle stretches that are done lying down or standing up. At first, I could barely get off the floor without excruciating pain after doing the exercises. But now, I’m able to actually switch positions without wincing in agony. 

I’d written about acupuncture for pain and, feeling desperate for relief, scheduled a session with a licensed acupuncturist. The two sessions that I have had so far have brought some pain relief that can last for several days. The acupuncturist told me that my back and hips are incredibly tight because I am holding myself more rigidly due to pain. 

She also shared some information about pain that I hadn’t gotten from the doctor. “Acupuncture can help with the pain mechanism,” says Jennifer Mohr-Boscaino, L.Ac., who practices acupuncture in Pleasantville, NY. “Pain can make the body tense, and then the tension can make the pain worse. The vicious cycle is why pain treatment isn’t straightforward.”

After two acupuncture treatments, I definitely feel better. Mohr-Boscaino says that it typically takes five once-a-week sessions of acupuncture to get pain relief, and usually 8 to 10 sessions for a long-term change. She also stressed the importance of sleep, something I am definitely lacking in.

“An adult body heals during sleep,” she told me. “If you can relax and sleep deeper, the body can heal better and more quickly.”

(I’m working on it.) 

Alternative Sciatica Treatments

I tried to be patient. I started to look around for more answers and in the process discovered the book, “Back in Control,” by David Hanscom, MD. Dr. Hanscom is a spine surgeon who feels that back pain often can be conquered without surgery. Stress and anxiety can contribute to back pain, and sleep can be healing, he says. “We work on sleep, stress, and medication management,” Dr. Hanscom explained to me when I called him. 

His advice for people who have back pain? “A person must take control of their own care, and the only person who can solve it is you,” Dr. Hanscom told me. And, he said, doctors don’t always know the stressful situations outside of a physical reason for pain that a person may be dealing with. These situations could be contributing to pain.  “We treat symptoms but we don’t deal with the circumstances,” he explained. “It is like trying to put out an oil well fire with a garden hose.” 

I resolved to get more sleep and cut down on stress. (No, not by eating carbs! By doing some exercises for my arms and upper body.) I was feeling a range of emotions as I started my third week of considerable pain: 

  • Anger—how could this be happening in the middle of a pandemic when there is already so much going on that’s wrong?
  • Disbelief—how could this happen to me when I am in good physical shape?
  • Real fear—will this ever go away or will I always be hobbling around in pain? 

A Second Opinion

For a second opinion, I went to see an orthopedist who specializes in rehabilitation medicine. He performed many of the same diagnostic tests as the first doctor and likewise advised physical therapy. He also recommended that I get a heating pad and also buy Salonpas pain-relieving patches and Voltaren Topical Gel.

I tend to listen to what a doctor says to do and then ignore 90% of it. But in this case, pain has humbled me. When the doctor said to take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) naproxen (Aleve) for 10 days, I complied. He said it would help reduce inflammation and it did help me feel better. And the acupuncture and physical therapy are helping, too. (I skipped the Salonpas and Voltaren, at least for now.) But I got a heating pad and use it a couple of times a day.

What Sciatica has Taught Me

Nearly a month after my sciatica diagnosis I was not doing even half of what I was before. But I’ve learned a few lessons since this all began. One is to be patient and accept the fact that we don’t bounce back the way 20-year-olds do. Another is to be your own advocate. Trust your instincts. If you would feel better getting a second opinion, go the extra mile to find another expert. And know that it’s not all about medicine. Sleep heals. So can physical therapy, but not overnight.

While having to slow down and cut out my walks has been hard, it also has meant sleeping a little bit longer in the morning. I’m trying to take one day at a time and to accept the things I cannot change. One of these things is a less-than-pristine house. For now, anyway, my vacuum cleaner has been retired.

Updated on: 03/29/21
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Sciatica Self-care: 5 At-home Remedies for Low Back and Leg Pain
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Sciatica Self-care: 5 At-home Remedies for Low Back and Leg Pain

These 5 at-home sciatica therapies are good options for people who recently started experiencing sciatic nerve pain or whose low back and leg pain is not severe.
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