Ease pain from sciatica by breaking bad habits

When sciatica made my foot go numb, the doctor told me to switch from high heels to flats – an instruction I did not want to hear!  But I knew I needed to do something, so I gave it a try.

The good news for my wardrobe - it didn’t work.   A podiatrist later explained to me that flats didn’t help because I have really high arches and my feet had gotten used to being in heels.  But I was able to find some things that helped.  Here’s what I learned:

Sciatica is pain caused by irritation of the sciatic nerve.  My sciatica starts in my buttock and tracks down the back of my right thigh and calf.  Then it shoots right down into my arch and the bottom of my foot – which causes my foot to go numb.  I could tell when I was driving that I didn’t really have a good grip on the gas pedal or the brake.

That’s when I decided to get checked by my doctor. The Mayo Clinic website suggests seeing your doctor if your symptoms don’t go away in a month.  Sciatica can be a symptom of something that could cause permanent nerve damage, so it’s important to get checked out.  In my case, an MRI and nerve conduction tests showed nothing wrong.  I just needed to deal with the symptoms.

At that point I knew I needed to be my own advocate and figure out what was going to work for me.  So I started by thinking about what I knew made me feel worse, and I turned to my colleagues and friends to find out what helped them.

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I spend a lot of my time at my desk or traveling, which means sitting on airplanes.  I realized my pain was worse when I sat for too long.  A friend told me about a special seat cushion that really helped her sciatica, and it has made a huge difference for me.  It’s made up of little balls of air, so it levels you out when you’re sitting and cushions your buttocks. I keep it on my desk chair and it really helps.  I recommend looking up seat cushion options online.

I also realized that when I was traveling, I carried my big, heavy purse around all the time.  I also sometimes pulled my briefcase on wheels.  Both of those things were twisting my back, affecting my posture, and making my sciatica worse. So I lightened the load in my purse and stopped pulling the briefcase which really makes a difference when I’m traveling.

Stress is another issue that tightens my muscles, which makes the pain worse.  I found that a deep tissue massage with a good therapist works out some of the knots caused by stress. Some of my friends also had good luck with acupuncture and yoga, so I tried both and also had great results. Now I’m working on strengthening my core, which can help support my spine, and I’ve learned how to do certain stretches in yoga that really make a difference in my sciatic pain.

So much of what helps me has come down to breaking bad habits.  I did some research and learned that crossing my legs was a bad habit that I needed to break.  An acupuncturist explained to me that crossing your legs blocks both circulation and energy flow.  So now I try to make it a habit to sit with my feet flat on the floor.  It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it because it makes me feel better.  I just know that I need to be mindful of things that will cause a flare-up so I can avoid doing them.

To sum things up, here are my top 5 things that can help ease sciatica symptoms:

1.   Go to the doctor if pain lasts more than a month.

2.   Get up, move around, and stretch hourly.

3.   Look into massage, acupuncture, and yoga.

4.   Quit carrying the kitchen sink around (also known as your handbag) and don't tow that rolling bag if you can help it.

5.   And the hard one - no leg crossing! Don't shoot the messenger.  I'm only saying it can be bad for you for lots of reasons.

Here's my bottom line: Whether it’s sciatica, or some other health issue, listen to your body.  Pay attention to what your body is telling you.  Quit putting your health into someone else’s hands.  Stand up and own it yourself.