Dear Running Doc:
For months I’ve had pain and tingling going down my left leg. When I run it gets worse. My doctor told me it’s “sciatica” and sent me to physical therapy, but I am no better. What should I do? Will I be able to run again??
— Joyce B., Manhasset, NY
Thanks, Joyce, for the question. Chances are you will run again, but first you must learn the root cause of your problem. Sciatica—irritation of the sciatic nerve—is a symptom, not a diagnosis. It’s like going to the doctor after turning your ankle and being told you have a swollen ankle! You need to work with your doctor (or find another doctor you can work with) to find out why you’re having pain and tingling.
One possibility is pressure or inflammation on the sciatic nerve, which originates in the spinal column and runs down both legs. Any injury near this nerve can cause the pain, tingling and numbness you describe. It might be a herniated (slipped) disc, a crack in a vertebra, a tear or inflammation of a ligament or tendon, or something else.
With your doctor, pinpoint when the pain first occurred, what brings it on, what makes it better, and what makes it worse. The doctor should observe your walking form and the wear pattern of your running shoes. Based on your history and exam results, you may need testing by X ray, CT scan, MRI, CT myelogram, and/or electromyography, as well as blood testing. Treatment may involve stretching and strengthening exercises, cross training, anti-inflammatories, chiropractic manipulation, and—in very rare cases—surgery.
Many runners suffer chronically from the sciatic symptoms, spend a lot of time and money in doctors’ offices, and eventually “just live with it.” You need not be one of them. If “sciatica” is as far as you can get with your physician, consult someone else.
Hope Joyce this helps. If you have any further questions, please write.
Enjoy the Ride!
Lewis G. Maharam, MD, FACSM is one of the world’s most extensively credentialed and well-known sports health experts. Better known as Running Doc™, Maharam is author of Running Doc’s Guide to Healthy Running and past medical director of the NYC Marathon and Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series. He is also past president of the New York Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine. Learn more at runningdoc.com.