Marianne Lee Photography
Severe sciatic pain sidelined Gwendolyn Gardner, 54, for months — until she discovered the simple stretches that made all the difference.
Gwendolyn Gardner gently rolled onto her side, hoisted herself up and slowly got out of bed, all in an effort to manage the excruciating sciatic pain in her lower back. Once she was upright, she called for her 12-year-old daughter. “Elizabeth, are you ready to help me put my socks and shoes on?”
“I always drove Elizabeth to school in the morning, but because the back pain was so debilitating, she had to help me get ready,” Gwendolyn recalls. “As a single mom, I was used to being the one who did everything for her, so being forced to ask for help was really humbling. As we chatted on the way to school, and I tried desperately to manage my pain, all I could think was, I must find a better solution.
“That was last year, when sciatic nerve pain made it impossible to do the activities I loved most. I had always been very active and enjoyed skating and tennis, but when the pain kicked in, I had to stop altogether. Since sports had been such a big part of my personal identity, having to give them up was disempowering.
“The pain also made it difficult to be all-in as a mom. I had always attended all of Elizabeth’s tennis matches, and it made her so happy to see me there, but I was in too much pain to sit. I’d often ask another parent to drive her, or if I had to drive her, I’d go back home to lie down. Elizabeth never said anything about it, but I know she was disappointed that I couldn’t be there.
“The sciatic pain got so severe that it affected my ability to work. As a designer of infant clothes, I often attended major trade shows and events to sell my clothing, but the pain made it impossible to lift boxes and set up the displays, much less drive there. I hired someone to help me, but eventually the pain got so bad that I couldn’t attend shows for three months. Since I wasn’t generating any income, I had to dip into my savings and take loans to make ends meet — it was devastating.
“Perhaps most frustrating was that I tried so many different things to ease the pain, including yoga, acupuncture, and weekly massages. I also joined a wellness group, and I tried alternative treatments like meditation and practicing gratitude. I know how powerful the mind-body connection can be, so I thought that if I addressed areas that were causing me stress, my pain would improve. Each one helped a bit, but none of them proved to be the long-term solution I needed. Although I was always a positive person, I started to give up hope and wonder when — or if — I’d ever feel better.
Relief At Last
“My brother had also suffered from chronic lower-back pain, so one day while we were talking, I asked him what had helped ease his pain. To my surprise, he told me about three simple moves he found in a magazine that were said to strengthen the core muscles and take pressure off the sciatic nerve, alleviating pain.
“I had serious doubts that the exercises would even work because they seemed so easy. And even if they did work, I wondered how long it would take to feel better. But I was desperate, and my brother assured me that if I stuck with it, they would help. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I decided to give them a try. I started out by doing 10 reps of each of the three moves he taught me every day.
“At first, I didn’t think it was working because I didn’t feel sore. I soon realized, however, that the more I did, the less pain I experienced and the stronger my abdominal muscles were. Within a month, I had significantly less pain, and by 10 weeks, the pain was gone! I still do the same exercises three days a week, and when I notice any stiffness in my back, I add a few sets.
“Now that I’m no longer sidelined by pain, I’m more active than ever — riding my bike, playing tennis and rowing. I’m also able to run my business — Simply Chickie Clothing — at full capacity and frequently travel to Boston, New York, and Las Vegas for work. I finally feel like the young, vivacious mom that I know I’ve always been! And most important, I’m able to be there for the big events in Elizabeth’s life. Now when she has tennis matches, I’m always there cheering her on!”
How Core Strengthening Nixes Sciatic Nerve Pain
Sciatic pain, which starts in the lower back and sends a burning sensation down the legs, occurs when the sciatic nerve is compressed, due to injury or age-related degeneration. “If you’re experiencing significant sciatic pain, exercise can relieve the symptoms,” says Michael Gleiber, MD, a spinal surgeon in West Palm Beach, Florida. “Weak or tight muscles put stress on the back and irritate sciatica. But strong core muscles support the spine, relieving pressure and pain.” The payoff: Back-pain sufferers who did core exercises three times per week eased his or her pain by 92 percent in six weeks. To get the benefits, follow Gwendolyn Gardner’s lead and complete these three core exercises daily.
1. Basic Crunch
Calling on the rectus and transverse abdominis, the classic crunch helps strengthen the core to improve spinal stability. To do: With knees bent and feet flat on the floor, squeeze your abs and slowly lift your shoulders, keeping your lower back pressed into the floor. Slowly lower back down and return to start. Do 10 reps.
2. Crunch Twist
This activates the transverse abdominis muscles, which cross the abdomen and support the spine. To do: With knees bent and feet flat on the floor, squeeze your abs and lift your shoulders up. From there, twist and touch your left knee, then your right knee. Lower back down and return to start. Do 10 reps.
3. Standing Trunk Twist
This exercise utilizes the erector spinae, multifidus, and gluteus medius muscles, which surround the spine. To do: Stand with feet hip-width apart, hands on your hips. Slowly twist from the waist all the way to the right. Return to starting position, then twist to the left. Do 10 reps.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.