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What Makes Sciatica Worse?

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Text sign showing hand written words Sciatica

Sciatica is the “electric sensation” or pain that radiates down from the lower back to the hips, buttocks, and down one leg. Sciatica typically affects only one side of the body and it occurs due to a herniated disc, bone spurs on the spine, or the narrowing of the spinal canal which compresses the nerve. Patients who suffer from sciatica often experience inflammation and numbness. 

So what factors trigger sciatica and make it worse? Anything that puts more pressure on the sciatic nerve can cause sciatica symptoms to flare up. This includes sitting too much, wearing uncomfortable footwear or too tight pants, sleeping in a wrong position, and being inactive. 

7 Triggers That Make Sciatica Worse

1. Uncomfortable Footwear 

High heels and other non-supportive shoes like flip-flops can aggravate your discomfort if you have sciatica. Not only are uncushioned shoes uncomfortable, but they can be hard on your feet as well.

High heels force you to lean forward slightly to keep your balance, changing the distribution of your weight and forcing you to put more pressure on the front of the foot. In turn, this seemingly small shift naturally causes you to push your pelvis forward. With your pelvis tilted awkwardly, the vertebrae of the lower back tries to keep your spine upright and places more pressure on your inflamed back. 

Walking and standing too long with the pelvis in this position can also stress out your hamstrings and stretch the sciatic nerve located nearby. Constant pressure and hamstring stretching can worsen your sciatica so be sure to wear shoes with supports built-in. 

2. Keeping Back Pockets Full 

While it is not officially recognized as a trigger for sciatica, people who suffer from the condition refer to keeping your back pockets full as “back pocket sciatica” or “cellphone sciatica”. It might be surprising to hear that your phone, wallet, or other back pocket items could be the mystery culprit triggering spinal pain so here is the explanation: 

When you sit down with your back pockets full of stuff, they can put unnecessary pressure on the piriformis muscle. The piriformis muscle helps us rotate our leg outward and the sciatic nerve runs right underneath this small muscle. Sitting on bulky stuff will force you to shift your balance to the piriformis muscle, which presses into the sciatic nerve and triggers pain.

3. Form-fitting Pants

Tight pants, skirts, and shorts could lead to unwanted sciatica pain. When you wear overly tight bottoms, you are forced to adjust when you move because there is added pressure squeezing into your hips, butt, legs, and lower spine. This can trigger pain and discomfort so be sure that what you’re wearing is not so tight that it digs into you. As much as possible, keep your legs active to keep your blood flowing. 

4. Prolonged Sitting 

As an activity, sitting for too long can put pressure on your glute muscles, lower back, and buttocks — where the sciatic nerve runs over. Staying seated compresses the sciatic nerve and causes it to flare up in pain. The solution is to move around as much as possible to give your sciatic nerve a break, stretch it out, and get your blood pumping. 

If you have a desk job, take a stroll during break times or walk around the office for a couple of minutes every hour. If you need to rest, it’s much better to lie down flat on your back so the pressure on your lower body spreads out. Poor sitting habits can also contribute to sudden bouts of sciatica. Even though curling your lower back can help to alleviate the pain, a bad posture can just make existing back pains worse. Try to find a pain-free way to sit by keeping your spine stable and in a neutral position. 

5. Being Inactive 

Daily activities where you move your body around a lot is a must for keeping the muscles strong and preventing back pain that stems from imbalance or weakness. Inactive patients who rarely exercise would have a harder time with sciatica because they don’t give their body the chance to grow stronger and more flexible. Resting for too long makes the body too weak, which strains the lower back once you start to move and leave you prone to injury. 

People who aren’t getting enough exercise also tend to be overweight, another trigger for recurring sciatica to occur. The extra weight in the mid-section puts additional pressure on the pelvis and the lower back. Losing a few pounds and engaging in a regular exercise routine can help ease pain and keep you healthy in the long-run. 

6. Poor Sleeping Position 

Lying down in an incorrect position can irritate nerve roots. When you sleep on your side, there is a tendency for the spine to misalign and strain your lower back. Drawing up your knees slightly can also engage the muscles in your buttocks, which irritate the sciatic nerve even more. It’s best to lie flat on your back with a low pillow supporting your head and tucking another pillow in the middle of your legs for added comfort. 

7. Moving Incorrectly 

Lifting and bending forward incorrectly can definitely cause sciatica symptoms to act up. The sciatic nerve runs over the buttock on its way to the leg so moving incorrectly can spike an increase in pain as the muscles rub against the sciatic nerve. This is why you may find that even coughing hunched forward can hurt as well, because of the stress on your lower back. 

If you have sciatica, you should avoid bending forward at the waist. Similarly, lifting a heavy object in this way can also increase stress on your lower back and squash the disc pinching your sciatic nerve. With a history of back pain and sciatica, it’s important to learn how to move properly. Instead of bending at the waist, focus on the hinge at the hip and keep your back straight. When you try to lift something off the ground, lift with both the hips and the legs rather than just the legs. 

Health Tips for Back Pain Management 

Avoid sitting for too long.  Staying seated for a long period of time puts pressure on the disc pinching the sciatic nerve. Set an alarm so you can take ‘walking’ breaks for five minutes every hour. 
Be sure to stretch daily.  Simple stretches can help you manage sciatica. Yoga poses like the child’s pose can help elongate your spine and alleviate pressure. For a simpler exercise, stand up and put your hands on your bum. Lean back and hold this pose for at least 10 seconds. 
Control how much you rest.  Resting for too long can be detrimental to the health of your lower back. Even though medication can help with pain relief, training and physical therapy would work much better for your body in the long run.

Read More:
Can You Use a TENS Unit for Sciatica Pain?
Acupuncture and Other Non-Surgical Treatment Options for Sciatica

Let The Experts At The Spine & Rehab Group Help With Your Pain

Don’t let sciatica interfere with living a healthy and active life. With some help from our highly-experienced doctors at The Spine & Rehab Group, we can help you get back into tip-top shape. Contact us today to schedule a consultation. 

Page Updated on Nov 10, 2022 by Dr. Hosny (Interventional Spine Specialist) of The Spine & Rehab Group
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