When it comes to running injuries, we tend to think of ailments related to bone, muscle and other soft tissues. One of the more common injuries runners encounter, however, deals with nerve pain. Sciatica refers to a sharp and sometimes numbing sensation that travels the length of the sciatic nerve, from the low back through the buttock and into the leg. While it's not usually a season-ending injury, it often warrants a trip to your physical therapist to figure out the root cause.
Since "sciatica" is sometimes used as a catchall term for leg pain, it's important to first determine if it is truly a nerve issue you're dealing with.
"The most common symptoms are numbness, tingling or burning pain in the leg or weakness in the muscles of the leg or foot," explains Ann Wendel, a physical therapist and athletic trainer in Alexandria, Virginia. "Some patients have back pain, but not all."
Sciatica Is a Symptom, Not a Cause
It is important to understand that sciatica is a symptom of a larger issue in the kinetic chain. Depending on where the nerve is pinched or inflamed, an athlete may experience discomfort in different parts of the back, leg and foot. Perhaps the most common cause of sciatica is a herniated disc, which irritates the nerve. Similarly, disc degeneration can also inflame the nerve at its root, causing pain and discomfort.
In runners, piriformis syndrome is another common culprit. A muscle located deep in the hip area behind the gluteus maximus that goes from the pelvis to the femur, it sits adjacent to the sciatic nerve and, for a small portion of people, runs directly through the muscle. The piriformis aids in the rotation of the hips during running and can cause pain when it gets tight or inflamed during training. Since this phenomenon is quite complicated, even the top experts aren't in agreement in regards to how and why this is a problem for some people and not others.
"The best course of action is to consult with a physical therapist when the back or leg pain begins so that they can help you identify contributing factors," advises Wendel. "Physical therapists are musculoskeletal experts who can evaluate you and make referrals necessary based on your symptoms."
Indeed, the sooner you get in to see an expert, the less likely you'll end up with a bigger problem in the future.