Sciatica: Symptoms, Causes & Prevention

**Not Medical Advice!  Copyright Max Wettstein 2012

I want to qualify this article right away as advisory in nature only.  As your resident ‘health and fitness tips’ advisor, I like to address all occupational health hazards we as pilots are at risk of, even though I’m not  technically qualified to discuss many of them.  Sometimes I take on medical subjects beyond my realm of comfort, but it is with good intent, if only to make you more aware.  It is never my intent to give medical advice.

     Most of us are already familiar with Sciatica.  If we’ve not experienced some form of the symptoms ourselves, we know somebody who has.  Sciatica is pain along the large sciatic nerve that runs from the lower back down the back of each leg, and is a relatively common form of low back pain and leg pain, and/or numbness.

     The long-term sitting nature of our job increases our risk of Sciatica.  As we all know by now, sitting, especially slouching places stress on the lumbar spine.  Over time, this can lead to inflamed, bulging or herniation in the discs that cushion our vertebrae – a source of low back pain in it self, sometimes known as a slipped disc.  These inflamed discs can then put pressure on the nerves that connect to the sciatic nerve, a condition often diagnosed as “radiculopathy”.  Like wise, sitting also causes pressure on the back of our thighs, increasing the possibility of stressing and irritating the portion of the sciatic nerve that runs down the back of both our legs.  And as if all of this sitting didn’t put us at risk enough, bending and twisting with a heavy load, such as your luggage, can also stress your vertebrae discs.

     Sciatica usually results in a dull, annoying pain that comes and goes, usually disappearing once we’re out of the cockpit for a while and back into our normal activities of home life.  However for some people the pain can be severe and debilitating.  Typically sciatica only affects one side of the lower body, and the pain often radiates all the way through the back of the thigh and down through the leg.  Other symptoms may include burning or tingling down the back of the leg, weakness, numbness, or difficulty moving the leg or foot, a constant pain in one side of the rear, a shooting pain that makes it difficult to stand up.  While sciatica can be painful, it is rare that permanent nerve damage will occur and usually symptoms will improve in a few days to a few weeks, once inflammation subsides.  Often in our case, just getting up out of the seat will help immediately.  Sciatica does not present any danger of permanent paralysis either.

     If you begin experiencing any symptoms of sciatica, of course you should mention it to your flight doc at your next appt or when convenient.  While sciatica typically does not constitute a medical emergency, there are some warning signs that should serve as red flags to seek immediate medical attention, such as: Pain associated with acute trauma; Pain is constant and worsening; Pain is in the back of the chest; You have a history of cancer, (possible tumor growth); you have great difficulty bending forwards; You have developed numerous problems in your nervous system including loss of mobility or power; You have developed an obvious structural deformity in your spine.

     As is with most back pain, mild sciatica is nothing to panic about and is easily treated by: Getting up and moving, and leading an active lifestyle, (e.g. No bed rest!); Simple NSAIDs such as OTC Ibuprofen as necessary for pain and inflammation; temporarily eliminating activities that put extra stress on your low back.  If you have to lift your luggage, take the time to use proper form.  If symptoms are constant for more than a few weeks or are getting worse, the next step will probably be an MRI scan or CT scan mainly to determine if surgery will help cure your sciatica.

     You know, I thought I could write at least one article without mentioning the benefits of exercise, but it is just not possible when writing about your health.  Exercise is always a common theme in injury and disease prevention.  By strengthening and toning the muscles in your lower back and abdominals, you will have a stronger core, have better posture, and take much of the strain off of your lumbar vertebrae when sitting.  Prevention is a lot less painful and a lot less expensive.  Make your wife’s day and take a yoga class with her.  Sit behind her so she won’t laugh as you attempt to pretzel yourself into the various postures.

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