Overcoming Sciatica through Diet & Exercise
With the proper care, sciatica can be managed and treated with good nutrition and activity
When Chris Cooney, known online as The Vegan Zombie, recalls what it was like to live with sciatica, it always comes back to one event in his life. While he was training for his FBI physical fitness test, he hopped online to look up exercises that would give him an edge during his conditioning.
One of the exercises he found was based on a workout from the 2006 film, 300. The exercise involved performing plyometric exercises. Cooney decided to up the ante and add 20-pound dumbbells. When he landed from a jump, he felt immediate pain shooting through his leg and thought that he might have pulled a hamstring.
On a run later that evening, Cooney noticed that the pain in his leg didn’t let up. After two weeks, he still had the burning pain and realized after a quick Internet symptom search that he had sciatica.
“What happened was a piece of my disc bulged out—I guess it was weakened—after doing the exercise and it was pressing against my sciatic nerve. I could feel it all the way down to my heel. It was this radiating pain that would not go away,” he recalls. “The quality of my life started going downhill.”
For the next two years, he suffered from sciatica. His doctor recommended several treatment plans for him from physical therapy and cortisone shots to microdiscectomy, a minimally invasive surgical procedure that provides relief from back pain caused by a lumbar herniated disc. After much consideration, he opted for the procedure and now he’s pain-free. After sciatica, Cooney found himself 30 pounds heavier.
“I didn’t like where I was. I was the most overweight as I had ever been and mentally I wasn’t comfortable in my own clothes,” he says.
He has since worked out for 15-20 minutes every day for three years straight, focusing on core exercises to strengthen his back, which helped him to get into the best shape of his life after living with sciatica. After three months, he was 30 pounds less using this minimalist approach. “It took me three months to [get to] where I was happy, and then I just maintained it ever since by eating the proper diet and working out on a daily basis,” Cooney says.
What is Sciatica?
Sciatica happens when the sciatic nerve—the longest nerve in your body—is pinched or compressed causing leg pain, tingling, numbness, and weakness that can run from your lower back through your buttocks and down your leg into your foot. People with sciatica describe the condition as a burning or shooting pain that makes walking, sitting, and other daily activities difficult to endure.
Nutrition for Sciatica
Magnesium-rich foods are generally recommended for people with sciatica since this nutrient aids your body in releasing muscle contractions. According to Dr. Josh Axe, a certified doctor of natural medicine, doctor of chiropractic, and clinical nutritionist, "about 99 percent of your body’s total magnesium is stored in your bones, muscles and soft tissues while only about 1-percent is concentrated in the blood."
Foods rich in magnesium include spinach, Swiss chard, dark chocolate, dried pumpkin seeds, black beans, avocado, dried figs, yogurt, bananas, dairy, apricots, fish, and brown rice. Consuming more of these foods can help you manage and relieve sciatic pain. Susham Jaiswal, a dietitian and nutrition consultant, recommends that people who have sciatica also eat omega-3-, vitamin b-, and antioxidant-rich foods, all of which help reduce the inflammation associated with this condition.
“What happened was a piece of my disc bulged out—I guess it was weakened—after doing the exercise and it was pressing against my sciatic nerve. I could feel it all the way down to my heel. It was this radiating pain that would not go away,” he recalls. “The quality of my life started going downhill.” — Chris Cooney
“You have to [eat] more omega-3 essential fatty acids, which reduce inflammation naturally. You can eat salmon, fish, sardines and cold water fish,” she says. She also warns, “You want to reduce all other animal protein in your diet. Take more B-vitamin rich foods and vegetables. Eat a lot of fiber-rich foods like legumes, whole cereals, and whole grains. These provide a lot of antioxidants and phytonutrients.” As you make changes in your diet, be sure to avoid excessive calories since weight gain can worsen this condition. Download an app like MyPlate Calorie Tracker for iOS or Android to help you track your eating successfully.
Activity & Fitness to Help Manage Pain
While it may seem logical to rest your body when you have sciatica to prevent any sort of flare-up, resting does momentarily relieve pain, but periods of inactivity can make sciatica feel worse. Talk to your doctor or specialist about creating a custom exercise plan to help you stay active while you manage sciatica. Be mindful to follow the plan as prescribed since improper exercise will likely worsen sciatica pain and prolong your condition.
From a fitness standpoint, exercises that involve engaging your core are among the best for easing the pain of sciatica and strengthening those muscles that support your spine. Here are a couple of different types of workouts that are ideal for people who are currently struggling with sciatica or who are prone to chronic back pain.
- Walking. Perhaps the best exercise for the lower back, walking for 30 minutes a day provides you the same benefit as a single-session of aerobic exercise.
- Swimming. A low-impact exercise, swimming boosts your heart rate and helps to burn calories all while being gentle on the spine. You can choose between aqua aerobics, water walking, or swimming laps across the pool.
- Pilates. Focused on creating and improving mental acuteness and core strength, Pilates helps you to maintain a properly aligned spine. Pilates engages your body through deliberate and controlled motion. Like swimming, it’s low impact and helps to shape and tone your body.
- Yoga. Gentle yoga poses, like cat-cow sequence, child’s pose, or upward-facing dog, are easy on the back. Many of the basic poses provide quick pain relief and help you open up your back and stretch muscles that may have become tight from sitting.
- Stretching. Daily stretches before you get out of bed can help to relieve pain associated with sciatica by warming the muscles for use. Stretches should be eased into and done with care.
Using BackerNation’s Wellness Coaches to Assist You
If you’ve recently discovered that you have sciatica and aren’t sure where to begin your treatment plan or if you are unsure what your treatment options are, BackerNation has wellness coaches who can guide you. You’ll have access 24/7/365 to health care professionals, dietitians, fitness trainers, and physical therapists who can provide you a custom treatment plan. And best of all, our wellness coaches work virtually and can help you right from your home. So whether you need to talk about your pain, get advice about your nutrition, or have an exercise demonstrated for you, we’ve got you covered.
Unlike other chronic back pain conditions, sciatica affects each person differently. It’s also treatable, as you learned from Cooney, who after his treatment turned to diet and exercise to take control of his health. Your story can be the same and BackerNation can help. Get started now by learning more about the BackerNation wellness coaches.