Sciatica Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment

Man holding sore back
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Sciatica is the most common running-related back problem.  It involves the sciatic nerve, which forms a network in the gluteal (buttock) area. Sciatica is when the sciatic nerve is inflammed, causing annoying, sometimes debilitating, pain.


Symptoms of sciatica include pain that begins in your back or buttock and moves down the back of your leg and may even extend to the outside of your foot.

Weakness, tingling, or numbness in the leg may also occur. Sometimes the pain can be so bad that you must lie down to get relief.


The most common cause of sciatica is a bulging or ruptured disc in the spine pressing against the nerve roots that lead to the sciatic nerve. Often that happens to people who bend and lift a lot. Among runners, the cause is often uneven pressure on the soft-tissue disks in your spinal column, which can be a result of leaning forward too much when running or other biomechanical problems. A disk can also be compressed from the pounding and shock of running. 

Also, sitting for long periods of time -- at a desk job, for example -- may lead to sciatica. Many runners with sedentary jobs have weak back muscles, making them more susceptible to back injuries. In addition, when you're sitting all day, your joints get stiff.  Going for a run with all those stiff joints can put a lot of pressure on your disks and cause them to bulge out and irritate the sciatic nerve.


As is true for preventing any type of running injuries, you should ramp up your running mileage and intensity safely. Don't increase your mileage by no more than 10% per week. Also make sure you're wearing the correct running shoes for your foot and running style, to help reduce or eliminate possible biomechanical issues.

Strengthening your core muscles by doing exercises such as modified sit-ups and reverse sit-ups will help. This is especially important if you have a sedentary job. You should also stretch after exercises, especially your hamstrings and abdomen. An effective ab stretch to do is a press-up.  Also be sure to stretch your piriformis muscle, which is located beneath the gluteal (butt) muscles. If you do sit a lot during the day, try to take frequent breaks to walk around, stand, and/or stretch.


Your doctor may prescribe icing the area, physical therapy, cross-training (walking often helps), strengthening exercises, anti-inflammatories, and/or muscle relaxants. Doing a biomechanical evaluation may also help determine the cause of problem and lead to a solution. Some runners with sciatica choose to see a chiropractor or acupuncturist and find relief through those treatments.

Some runners with sciatica find that using heat on the lower back area helps. Try using a heating pad on a low or medium setting for 15 to 20 minutes every 2 or 3 hours.

Try a warm shower in place of one session with the heating pad. You can also buy single-use heat wraps that last up to 8 hours. There's no overwhelming evidence that heat will help, but you can try it to see if it makes a difference. With back pain, what works for one person may not work with another, but it's worth trying differing options.

Sources:, "Sciatica", accessed 9/15, "Sciatica - Overview", accessed 9/15

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