Sciatica and weight lifting are commonly associated topics for 2 main reasons. Some patients feel that they hurt their backs while lifting weights and therefore are now suffering with chronic sciatica. Other patients feel that weight training might just be a potential cure for their pain, since it is often advised as part of a physical therapy program.
Resistance training is one of the best all-around fitness activities for the human body. It can build a strong skeleton and help to fight off the effects of osteoporosis. Furthermore, the aesthetic enhancements to the physique are surely a nice benefit for all the hard work put into training. However, all is not positive when it comes to resistance workouts.
This article will provide a balanced view of the pros and cons of weight training and will further detail how sciatica may be caused or possibly cured using targeted resistance exercises.
I receive many letters from patients who feel that they permanently injured their backs while lifting weights. Sometimes, this is theorized to occur while moving furniture or doing physical labor, but in a great number of cases, these traumatic events occur in the gym.
While it is possible to injure the spine from resistance work, it is very unlikely that any of these typical events will cause lasting injury. Sure, short-term pain is certainly a possibility, but most minor back injuries will heal on their own or with appropriate medical care. This is because most sudden acute injuries affect the soft tissues and not the actual components of the spine, such as the vertebrae or intervertebral discs.
Pain which exists months or even years later is highly unlikely to come from lifting any reasonably sensible amount of weight. Most injuries heal, since this is the primary function of the human anatomy.
Some injuries might not heal, such as the uncommon incidence of disc pathologies or even vertebral fractures. Even severe muscular tears can create painful scar tissue or suffer from repetitive strain syndrome if they are not properly rehabilitated. In other cases, the cause of acute pain may not be at all structurally-motivated. Ischemic sciatica can perpetuate pain, or even create it, and is often commenced with a trigger event which will lend credibility to the syndrome as a purely injurious event. In this case, lifting weights can act as the trigger for a psychosomatic sciatica condition to begin or escalate.
Since there is a great diversity of possible reasons why a person might suffer sciatica or pseudo-sciatica after a weight lifting workout, it is crucial to have the condition evaluated by a spinal neurologist, a physical therapist or a sports medicine specialist. If a diagnostic verdict is reached, then it is wise to get a second opinion before seeking any care.
Many sciatica patients are prescribed weight training as part of a rehabilitation program, with the goal of permanently ending their suffering. While exercise is great for the mind and body, it is unlikely to create a lasting cure for any spinally-enacted form of back pain.
Typically, patients enjoy short-term relief during and after exercise, but the pain returns a while later. This occurrence might reinforce an ischemic source to the sciatica pain condition, since exercise will not do anything at all to resolve symptoms due to a spinal abnormality, such as a herniated disc or osteoarthritis process.
Exercise will, however, increase regional circulation and temporarily fight the effects of oxygen deprivation in the lower back and legs. Remember, sciatica is a neurological syndrome and no degree of strong and supportive musculature will prevent symptoms from occurring if they are truly caused by a compressive neuropathy in the spine or a central stenosis condition.
Let this fact help guide you in ascertaining the accuracy of any diagnostic verdict, if exercise does enact temporary relief from these types of traditional sciatica explanations.
Generally, I advise patients that most perceived chronic back injuries are just that: perceived. This is not to say that there was no injury originally, since hurting the back is very possible when lifting weights or doing any athletic activity. It is simply explaining that injuries heal and their pain is not likely to last for years from what amounts to a strained back muscle they suffered at the gym 3 years ago.
Many patients are subsequently diagnosed with degenerated discs or even a herniation after a perceived injury, but there is no sure way to tell if the trauma was indeed the cause of said disc condition. Many patients have these disc abnormalities for a long time and simply do not know it, since they cause no pain. Once discovered, however, these scapegoat conditions take the full blame for chronic symptoms and usually set the stage for a protracted time of continued suffering.
In summary, here are my thoughts. Given decades of experience in world-class athletic competition, and being a certified fitness trainer, I have a bit of knowledge about resistance work.
Injuries happen every day. However, most are muscular and will not cause sciatica symptoms, unless they happen to affect the piriformis muscle and create sciatic nerve compression due to spasm. This is a rare event.
Spinal injuries are also possible and can spell dire consequences in the rarest of cases. Most disc irregularities are not acute and might not have any relation to weight lifting related pain. In almost all cases, regardless of the actual injury sustained, healing should and will occur. Chronic pain is not likely from common weight lifting traumas.
In order to enjoy a fast recovery time and a decreased incidence of recurrent pain, be sure to have all traumas evaluated by a neurologist and physical therapist. Look for good doctors who will take an objective view of the symptoms and will seek to correlate them to the actual source process, rather than simply imaging the spine and blaming the first abnormal factor they discover.
Be clear; there is not always a direct relationship between sciatica and weight lifting. Remember also to include the possible emotional contributors to the extension of chronic pain, as many weight lifters develop phobias involving re-injury after the initial incident.
Furthermore, in some cases, the person’s own personality type may make them incredibly susceptible to mindbody symptoms due to perfectionistic, overly driven or compulsive behavior patterns. These are all common characteristics of serious weight lifters.