Sciatica

By definition, ‘sciatica’ refers to compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve. As the longest nerve in the body, running from the low back down through the entire leg, this irritation can have widely varying causes and symptoms for each person. Depending on where and how it shows up, different stretches or self-massage techniques may be more effective for different people. That said, there is some myofascial continuity along the entire back-leg line, which all these stretches target in some way. By softening one portion of the line, other spots have more room to release as well.

In the outer hip, six muscles that run roughly parallel to one another all externally rotate the leg at the hip. The sciatic nerve runs over the top of all but one of them, the piriformis. When the piriformis is tight, it pinches the sciatic nerve against the other rotator muscles. Working out the kinks in all these muscles can allow freer movement of the sciatic nerve, and the whole hip in general.

Roll it out:ITfoamroller

If you have a basketball, foam roller, or something moderately firm that rolls somewhere between 8″ and 12″ in diameter, you can use it to self-massage the hip and leg. Try starting by sitting on the ball on one side, with it directly under your sit-bone. From there, roll slowly backward and off to the side, using your hands and opposite leg for support as needed, so that the ball roughly traces a bikini-underwear line around to the front of your hip.  You can also roll along your hamstrings, quads, or other muscles of the leg and thigh.

Stretch it out:

hip stretchWhether sitting or lying down, many twists can be used to get into the hip rotators and stretch the whole area. Lying down, bend one leg and bring that knee across your body. Play with angle (aiming it closer to your shoulder or farther down) and how far you let your hip come off the ground until you find a juicy spot. Sitting up, a similar stretch can be done with one leg out in front of you and the other knee bent and that foot across the outstretched leg. Try hugging that knee to your chest, or twisting towards it, to feel different effects. From there, again either sitting or lying down, bring the ankle of the bent leg to the opposite thigh/knee, and bend the straight leg to bring the foot of the stretching leg towards your body. Make sure to stretch both sides, even if only one feels tight – not only is it good for balance in general, but the body sends messages back and forth and working the “good” side can help the other side loosen up.

Whether from sitting, biking, standing, inactivity, or any number of other lifestyle factors, many people have stiff, tight, or otherwise “gunky” hamstrings. This is often related to sciatica symptoms, and softening the backs of the legs can often help with posture as well as sciatica symptoms. One easy way to allow your legs enough time to sink into a stretch and release connective tissues as well as muscles is to lie on your back with your legs up a wall. Do get as close to the wall as possible, so the entire length of both legs is against the wall. If this is too much of a stretch, fold up a blanket or towel (or two, or three) to go under your lower back. Make sure you can stay here comfortably, and give yourself at least 3-5 minutes to unwind and let go here.

Be gentle with yourself!  Whether stretching or rolling out tight spots, make sure you stay comfortable and able to breathe deeply and easily.  By working slowly and persistently within your comfort zone, your body can learn to open and soften.  Too much stretch or pressure can not only do damage to your tissues, but can also reinforce a pattern of bracing against harsh stimulus and create more tension.

Shoulders

Businessman with the World on his Shoulders

Metaphorically speaking, the shoulders are the place where people tend to carry the weight of the world. Shoulders are also the place from which we reach out to interact with the world: as the connecting point for the core body (concerned with ‘being’) and the arms (concerned with ‘doing’), tension in the shoulders can relate to imbalances in the space where the inner and outer worlds meet. And if the outer world isn’t to our inner liking, sometimes it gets picked up and held onto in hopes of changing or controlling it. If your shoulders carry more tension than is really necessary for supporting the weight and movement of your arms, it might be worth checking in with them to see what else they’re holding onto and whether it’s serving any purpose.

In terms of anatomy, most shoulder troubles I’ve worked with seem tied to use or stretch in one direction more than the other. Often, this looks like a daily habit of reaching forward, rounding the upper back, and leaning the head and neck forward – computer or desk time. (Lifting and carrying things around creates a similar shape in the upper back and shoulders, but tends to activate the stretched muscles more.) Possibly the simplest way to balance a daily habit that shifts the alignment of the body, thereby contributing to pain and/or tension, is to spend time reversing that motion or shape. To balance out computer time, try spending several minutes a day in a basic restorative yoga pose: roll up a towel or blanket to form a semi-firm pad 6-12″ in diameter and about the length of your spine. Lie down with it running up the middle of your back, adding a pillow for your head if desired. Legs can be in any shape that is relaxing and comfortable. Try having your arms palms-up at your sides, or reaching out at 90 degrees, or bent at the elbow to make a goal-post shape; any of these can help support the opening and softening of the front of the chest and shoulders. Explore different variations to find one that supports you in balancing and relaxing from the stress of the day.

posture

Whether or not you spend time at a computer every day, shoulders can easily accumulate stress and tension from day to day life. By keeping them moving and soft, energy, lymphatic fluid, and blood can flow more easily through them and help prevent stagnation and stiffness in general. Healthy shoulders have almost 360 dergees of rotation available. Spend some time stretching them in all directions and moving through gentle circles to feel which directions have more or less mobility. Even if you know of spots that are usually sore or tight, give attention to the whole joint. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and I’ve never seen a body with tension only on one side of something. By bringing movement and awareness into the whole shoulder, tight places can let go while weaker spots can learn to participate more.

Exercises you can do at home

  1. Tennis ball and/or wall corner/door frame
  2. Self-massage one side at a time
  3. Cactus arm stretches in doorway

Noticing habit patterns

  • Become aware of times when shoulders tense/hold unnecessarily
  • Catch it with a reminder to drop it quickly
  • Notice underlying impetus and work with that directly

Stress Reduction Tips

Although stress is generally not a primary complaint, it contributes to and can greatly exacerbate any pre-existing conditions or tendencies toward imbalance. By reducing stressors in our lives and reducing our own stress response to these triggers, many other aches and pains can soften and get easier to work with. Especially in the midst of a fast-paced and busy lifestyle, finding ways that work for you to let go of stress before it builds up unbearable pressure can be a pivotal piece in the process of finding inner peace and well-being.

There are a myriad of different methods and approaches to minimizing stress, and different ones or combinations work for different people. Here’s a (very) short list of ideas:

Aromatherapy

lavender aromatherapy
Lavender, cedar, sage, sandalwood, bergamot, geranium, and rose all promote relaxation. Try a few to find some that work for you. Some of these herbs are available fresh, and others in essential oil form. Whether using them in an eye pillow or adding drops to a bubble bath, the fragrances can support other relaxation practices or serve as their own breath of fresh air. Herb shops and health food stores are great places to find new scents in different forms to try out or bring home.

 

Meditation

meditationAt a very basic level, taking some time to stop and be still and focus all attention inward (and/or toward any conception of the sacred or divine) can be a powerful reset button for stress. Whether your meditation practice includes mantra or prayer or silence, eyes open or closed, alone or with a group of other meditators, is more a matter or personal preference than anything else. If you don’t already have a meditation practice that works for you, try a couple different methods and see which is most conducive to falling into a space of contented ease and serenity. If you’re totally at a loss for what to try, most yoga studios offer meditation classes or workshops from time to time, and there are a number of different spiritual groups that meet to meditate regularly as well.

 

Breathing

breathingAlthough the human body will breathe enough to sustain itself on a basic level without any assistance, adding awareness and intention to the breath can up the level of functioning from basic survival towards thriving. In general, taking long, slow, deep breaths will calm the nervous system and help the body come out of sympathetic fight-or-flight mode and relax into the parasympathetic nervous system to rest and recharge. Counting breaths, or counting during breaths (try breathing out for longer than each inhale) can also help focus the mind and bring it away from stress-perpetuating thought patterns. Alternate-nostril breathing, with or without breath retention, can also help balance both sides of the brain, and ground the psyche and body. Regardless of your chosen breathing technique, I suggest sending at least a minute (and preferably 5 or more) each day, or whenever you’re feeling particularly stressed, to bring awareness to your breath and focus on smoothing and calming the flow of air into and out of your body.

 

Physical Activity

activityAs a general rule, energy needs to move. When it get stuck without a readily available outlet, it can build up tension and general discomfort. Any sort of body movement or physical exercise provides an outlet for any pent-up stress or tension, and can help keep it from accumulating. If you have something specific that you’re ready to let go of, you can also try visualizing it leaving your system along with any sweat, breath, distance, or other indicators of physical exertion. If you are working with an acute physical condition, respect your body and its limitations! That said, bringing some movement into the affected area can help with recovery by increasing circulation and energy flow in general.

 

Art

Bob_at_EaselLike physical activity, creative expression can create an outlet for stuck energy. Artistic expression and process-oriented artwork can also bring clarity or a new perspective to areas of stress or tension. Either in a one-on-one or small group setting, Art Therapy can help bring awareness and resolution to many emotional and/or psychological imbalances. On your own, try using free expression in your medium of choice (drawing, sculpting, writing, singing, etc) without thinking about or planning the way it unfolds. The pure release can be useful, and looking back over the “end” product hours or days later can yield interesting insights.