Sitting with sciatica can be a painful proposition. Having bad posture while sitting with sciatica can be excruciating. Unfortunately, if you have a desk job, you sit at a desk most of your day. When you finish your workday, you head to your car and sit again to drive home. Then you get home, and you sit down at the table to have some dinner as your sofa is calling you from the living room. "Come sit down and watch television."
Research shows that Americans sit for 6.5 hours a day on average. That number seems low to me for people who have desk jobs. However, that is still a lot of sitting.
If you have a back problem such as sciatica or a herniated disc, there are days when you feel every minute of each one of those hours.
Why Does it Hurt to Sit?
The fact that your spine receives the highest compressive force when you are sitting is why sitting seems to make all back problems worse. First, let's talk about the mechanics of sitting.
You have gel cushions in between each one of your vertebrae. They have three main functions:
- They function as shock absorbers.
- They are strong ligaments that hold the vertebra together.
- They are cartilaginous joints that allow for slight movement in the spine.
When we speak of compressive forces, these discs are what are bearing the brunt of the compression.
Your posture when you are sitting causes different things to happen to the fluid inside these discs. Sitting in an entirely neutral position causes the discs to flatten out with the fluid evenly distributed. Sitting with a rounded back posture like this causes the liquid in the disc to push toward the back.
Sitting with an increased curve in your back causes the fluid in the disc to push toward the front.
Regardless of which way the fluid is pushing, there is very little space around your spine. If the bulge of fluid touches a nerve, it can cause pain in your back or pain to travel down your leg.
To summarize, try to sit with a neutral posture so that there are no bulges of fluid. If there are no bulges, there should be no pain.
Does Sitting Make Sciatica Worse?
Under normal conditions, this fluid freely moves around inside the disc. However, as we age, if we have sustained a back injury or repeated stress due to bad posture, the outside of the disc will get weak, and one of two common issues can occur.
A bulging disc - this happens when the outside of the disc that pushes out after sitting with bad posture for increased periods becomes swollen and inflamed and cannot retract back into the disc.
A herniated disc - this happens when the outside of the disc actually tears and allows some of the fluid inside to leak out.
Both of these conditions cause problems with the nerves of the spine. A bulging disc pushes against surrounding nerves, which we know are highly irritable and react poorly to crowded conditions.
The fluid that comes out of a herniated disc is highly irritating to nerves and causes them to react painfully.
Sciatica is often a result of these conditions.
It is important to note, just because sitting is painful, it doesn't mean you have a bulging or herniated disc.
Often times, painful sitting can be corrected with postural support. Improved posture will relieve some of the compression on your spine. Once your posture is corrected, the pain should subside. If it doesn't, then you should consult your physician.
How To Sit At Work
Proper sitting at work can be a challenge because you are often sitting in a chair that you didn't choose. This is where postural support comes into play.
Sit for a moment and take note of how you are sitting when you type, write, or any other function you perform at your desk. Do your feet touch the floor? Are your knees above or below your pelvis? Does your back feel rounded toward the back of the chair? Does the seat of the chair feel comfortable and provide support for your hips and tail bone?
You should be sitting upright with no unnatural curves in your spine. If you feel that your back is rounded, then a lumbar back support is a good investment. A support that is lightweight and adjustable on your chair is ideal, like the one pictured below.
Your feet should touch the floor, allowing for your knees to bend to the height of your pelvis. If they don't touch the ground, use a footrest under your desk.
This will allow your feet to rest comfortably and bring your knees up to pelvis height, like the one shown below.
If the seat of your chair feels hard and uncomfortable to your tail bone (coccyx) then a coccyx tailbone seat cushion will help reduce the impact of sitting throughout the day. The one pictured is my favorite for two reasons, I love memory foam and it has a cutout to relieve pressure on the tailbone.
How to Sit in the Car
Sitting posture in the car should be much the same as it is at work. Your left knee should be in alignment with your pelvis, and of course, your right leg will be extended out toward the gas pedal. A couple of great tools to have on hand for driving with good posture are a lumbar back support and a wedge cushion.
The lumbar support cushions add increased support to your car seat where you are likely to spend a considerable amount of time. Check the seat position in your car as well; you don't want to be so far back that you have to slide your hips forward to reach the pedals.
The memory foam wedge cushion has an ergonomic wedge design that alleviates pressure from your tail bone and hip bones to decrease leg fatigue by distributing your weight evenly throughout the cushion. The wedge design also facilitates upright sitting posture while driving or sitting at a desk.
Sitting on the Sofa
If you have back pain, the sofa is probably not your friend. Soft, plush furniture is a back pain sufferers nightmare. If your sofa causes back or leg pain, see if there are any postural support changes you can make. Will a lumbar support or wedge cushion make a difference? Do you need a footrest so that your feet are not dangling? If not, your best bet is to choose a more supportive sitting option.
Remember, pain is your body's way of letting you know that something isn't right. If you want to sit without pain, your body should be in proper postural alignment. If a chair or surface that you regularly sit on does not provide that for you, take action to make it that way. Add support where you need it. The results will not only make you more comfortable, but your back will be healthier too.