Anyone struggling with pain from sciatica will be the first to tell you that it’s no walk in the park—especially for those with a number of lifestyle risks that exacerbate symptoms and make it difficult to find relief. Driving, especially for long periods of time, is an example of an everyday activity that can cause sciatica symptoms to flare up.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the relationship between driving and sciatica, and share tips to help manage pain.
Understanding the Relationship Between Driving and Sciatica
Sedentary lifestyles are associated with sciatica1 symptoms such as leg pain and numbness. Sitting for long periods of time puts direct pressure on the spine and sciatic nerves due to dehydration of the lumbar discs. This can worsen lower back and leg pain and make working at a desk, driving, and other seated activities very uncomfortable.
In fact, past research2 shows that driving is causally associated with increased instances of lower back pain and sciatica. Even carmakers are invested in the topic—designing high-tech ergonomic and massaging seats, and in Volvo’s case, sponsoring a premier international spinal research award for over 20 years. Because the spine bears the brunt of all our daily activities—including all forces and vibrations—driving can put quite a bit of pressure on it and the sciatic nerve. As such, taking the proper precautions to reduce spinal loads when driving long distances can help protect against excessive strain on the spine and provide significant sciatica pain relief.
8 Tips to Manage Your Sciatica Symptoms on the Road
1. Stop and Stretch Often
First and foremost, taking frequent breaks to stretch and switch positions promotes a steady flow of fluid and nutrients to the lumbar discs and reduces compression of nerve roots in the spine. It may be tempting to limit your breaks and push through long stretches of driving to get where you need to go faster, but especially on lengthy trips you need to stop, stand, and stretch your lower back and legs.
Aim to take one short break for every two hours you’re on the road. It doesn’t have to be for an extended period of time—even a 15-minute break every couple of hours can do you a world of good when taking steps to manage sciatica symptoms during long car rides. If you’re prone to lower back and leg pain or already experiencing symptoms, you may want to take breaks more frequently, such as every 30-60 minutes.
2. Use a Sciatica Pillow
Special lumbar support pillows and cushions designed to decrease sciatica symptoms can be very effective, both while driving and sitting in general. Supportive pillows alleviate pressure on the sciatic nerve and help keep the spine aligned in its natural curvature.
There are a number of shapes, styles, and sizes of lumbar support pillows on the market, many of which were designed specifically to address painful sciatica symptoms while driving or sitting for extended periods of time.
3. Take Anti-Inflammatories
Inflammation due to irritation of the sciatic nerve and surrounding spinal discs is a known cause of swelling and pain. Taking over the counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen sodium can help reduce swelling and inflammation, ultimately relieving mild to moderate pain while driving.
Although this is only a temporary solution, it can be quite effective when traveling for long distances only on occasion. If you drive regularly for work, however, you may want to consider other pain management options, such as injection therapy, trigger point injections, and steroid injections to calm irritated nerve roots and reduce sciatica symptoms for a short window of time. In addition to injection treatments, some see pain relief with Turmeric, a natural anti-inflammatory medication.
4. Pay Attention to Your Position
Your posture matters when you’re driving. Much like when you’re standing, sitting in a chair, or sleeping, maintaining the correct posture can help you combat discomfort and prevent symptoms from flaring up while traveling. Use your backrest and decrease the flexion angle of your upper body to reduce spinal loads while driving, especially when you’re on the road for a prolonged period of time.
Also, make sure to sit up straight with your knees higher than your hips, and adjust your back support to approximately 110 degrees to the seat surface so you’re not hunching forward in your vehicle. In addition, it’s a good idea to avoid sitting on anything that’s in your back pocket like a phone or wallet, because this correlates with increased pain and piriformis syndrome,3 a known cause of sciatica symptoms that are caused by nerve compression around your hip.
5. Try Hot and Cold Therapies
There are a number of benefits associated with using hot and cold therapies to reduce sciatica symptoms while driving. Ice packs have an analgesic and anti-inflammatory effect, and they can significantly reduce swelling in your legs, hips, and lower back. Alternatively, applying heat can help to loosen tight muscles that cause spasms and increase blood flow, ultimately minimizing pain in the affected area.
Both can be very effective at reducing sciatica symptoms while driving, and the best option for you depends on your preferences. You may consider alternating between hot and cold therapies to maximize the benefits and protect your spine as much as you can. Typically, heat is more successful in treating chronic muscle pain and tightness, whereas ice is better with more acute injuries.
6. Stay Properly Hydrated
Dehydration impacts just about every part of the body, including the lumbar spine. When we are dehydrated, our muscles and joints can become stiff, tense, and painful on the move. On the other hand, when we drink the proper amount of water each day, our discs constantly rehydrate themselves as we move around. There is evidence that our discs rehydrate while we sleep, so make sure you are well hydrated before bed each evening.
Drinking plenty of water can reduce muscle spasms and keep your spinal discs as hydrated as possible. Plus, when our spinal discs are happy and hydrated, they serve as much better shock absorbers—something that’s clearly important to endure all the bumps and potholes the road has to offer.
7. Choose Your Car Wisely
When you’re in the market for a new car, look for one that’s easy to get in and out of, with a comfortable seating position well-suited to your height and body type. After all, if you’re on the taller side, you shouldn’t have to crane your neck or back to see out the windshield. That’s a lose-lose when it comes to your spine health and driving safely!
Choosing a vehicle with adjustable seat controls—and particularly with adjustable lumbar support—can significantly improve your driving posture by ensuring your car can be adjusted to your exact specifications. Some cars even have massaging seats now! Heated seats are also a nice perk and can help loosen muscles and increase blood flow, similar to using heat packs. Make sure the car you choose has seats that are comfortable for daily driving and longer trips.
8. Keep Up With Car Maintenance
It’s not only about choosing the right car—regular maintenance plays an important role too! Keeping up with routine maintenance on your vehicle can make for a smoother ride to protect your spine from jarring bumps in the road that can increase pain. Taking steps such as replacing worn shocks and tires as needed and having your car’s alignment checked will minimize any shaking or vibrations while driving.
Driving can be a real pain in the lower back when you’re a sciatica sufferer. However, by following these tips and taking the right precautions, you can minimize your symptoms and avoid pain flare-ups—each and every time you hit the road.
While this blog is meant to provide you with information you need to make an informed decision about your treatment options, it is not intended to replace professional medical care or provide medical advice. If you have any questions about the Barricaid, please call or see your doctor, who is the only one qualified to diagnose and treat your spinal condition. As with any surgical procedure, you should select a doctor who is experienced in performing the specific surgery that you are considering.
If you have any questions about Barricaid, you may ask your doctor. For additional information, please visit http://www.barricaid.com. For complete risk-benefit information: http://www.barricaid.com/instructions-for-use.
1 Antonius Rholmann, et al, “Measured loads on a vertebral body replacement during sitting,” The Spine Journal 11, no. 9 (2011): 870-875, doi: 10.1016/j.spinee.2011.06.017.
2 Markku Heliövaara, “Risk Factors for Low Back Pain and Sciatica,” Annals of Medicine 21, no. 4 (1989): 257-264, doi:10.3109/07853898909149202.
3 Md Abu B. Siddiq, “Piriformis Syndrome and Wallet Neuritis: Are They the Same?” Cureus 10, no. 5 (2018). doi:10.3109/07853898909149202.