Nerve related Back Pain

Nerve related back pain can leave you feeling trapped in your own body with no place to hide and seek refuge. With pain that can range from quite uncomfortable to positively debilitating, it’s estimated that around one in five us here in the UK are suffering with some form of back pain at any one time[1] of which for a small percentage, this pain will be nervy. The subject of nerve pain is complicated, and a bit of a sore spot for the medical community who are, to date, still trying to untangle the complexities of this subject. However, there are some key concepts when looking at nerve related back pain that we can consider in this article.

Nerves and stretching

Stretching and mobility for the sciatic nerve

Nerve bundles, such as the sciatic nerve which innervates the lower body, stem from the spinal cord. These collections of neurons, called fascicles, are, to somewhat degree, elastic and have a variable amount of stretch available to them depending on where they’re situated in the body. All nerves in the body can be stretched for around 6-20% and happily return to their normal, unstressed lengths, with some allowance for human variability[2].

So, whilst touching your toes in a yoga class or pre-run warm-up, you’re not only applying a healthy stretch to your muscles, but also your nerves, which is important for their correct functioning. The exception here is when nerves become irritated, such as with the condition of Sciatica. In this case stretching this thick nerve bundle for sustained periods of time, and towards end range, will potentially keep the nerve inflamed for longer[3].

Postures that can overstretch already inflamed nerves

For most people, the posture examples I’m about to mention will be of no issue to them. ‘Posture doesn’t matter…until it does’, seems to be the seemingly paradoxical view in the MSK industry right now. Broken down this is saying that our bodies are extremely resilient and can put up with a surprising amount of postural variation without any dramas. Much more than we were maybe once led to believe! But in the case of already aggravated nerves, there may be some daily habits in which we are unconsciously holding the nerves in an elongated position and unwittingly keeping them in a stressed state.

Basically, any position in which we’re hunched or curled up through the hips and spine for long periods is going to put the sciatic nerve on a sustained stretch. Think; slumping in a car on a long commute to work, then again in your office chair, slouching on a sofa in the evening, and sleeping in foetal position on your side while you sleep. For those with discogenic Sciatica, sleeping curled up may also be increasing the pressure from a bulging disc on a nerve root[4]. It’s no wonder so many people find it hard to shift their nerve pain when they’re not shifting their position from anterior flexion all day.

Sciatica - Nerves and back pain

Mobilise your Nerves with Nerve Flossing

Now please don’t take this the wrong way, I’m not saying that you should stop moving to protect the nerves, quite the opposite is true, nerves need movement to keep them happy and healthy. For example, some gentle spinal extensions (backwards bending) throughout the day will go some way towards counteracting the effects of sustained forward flexion that modern life often puts on us. However, whilst adding more lower back stretching in the form of forward folding might feel like what your body needs to relive that nasty bout of sciatica, mobilisation is more than likely the key to getting those nerve signals to settle down.

Sciatica - Back pain from nerve impingement

Therapeutic neuromobilisations, or nerve flossing/gliding, may sound fancy, but they are relatively simple exercises to practice. That said, in the case of persistent nerve pain, it may be advisable to work with a trained therapist, such as a Jing Therapist, who can judge when to start you with nerve mobilisations and show you how to perform them correctly.

Essentially, these therapeutic nerve mobilisations help train the nerves to move with more ease in the body in relation to the structures around them. Nerves have, as we know, electrical vibrations, but they can and should also slide and glide within the tissues that surround them[5]. This mechanical property of the nerve is known as Neurodynamics[6].

Internal stressors which may restrict the free movement of the nerves can occur in the form of tight muscles, poorly functioning and dehydrated fascia, scar tissue, and inflammation; caused by physiological or phycological causes. If nerves are inhibited from sliding and gliding freely, either by too much stretching or compression, then nerve damage and pain can occur[7].

Take aways about nerve related back pain:

  • Movement is medicine – Keeping the back rigid and immobile will only worsen the effect of nerve sensitivity.
  • Restricted muscles and fascia can put unwanted pressure on nerves, so can structures such as prolapsed spinal discs and scar tissue.
  • Inflammation can also exert pressure on the nerves. This may come from physiological changes in the body or mental and emotional stressors that hold us in a state of inflammation.
  • Working with an experienced therapist for targeted bodywork and myofascial release, is extremely beneficial for helping to restore slide and glide to the nerves in relation to their surrounding tissues in the body.
  • Healthy nerves are happy to be stretched, but aggravated nerves prefer to be mobilised.
  • If your nerve pain isn’t getting better, consider if any of your postural patterns though out the day are putting your sciatic nerve on a sustained stretch (Dropped forward head, rounded spine, flexed hip, toes towards body).
  • Lumbar spinal extension (lower back bending) may be challenging to those suffering with nerve related back pain. This movement should be included in your daily movement habits, however, it may need to be approached mindfully and under the guise of a therapist when first reintroducing it.
  • Lifestyle interventions such as looking at your diet, exercise routine and stress levels, as well as general sense of happiness and wellbeing, must also be considered when looking at nerve health.

If you would like to find out more about working with Emma in person, for a Clinical Massage and Integrative Healthcare treatment plan, then please send a message to Ocean Flow Therapies

Ocean Flow Therapies - Hayling Island

[1] (Ministry of Defence, 2008)

[2] (Clark, 2018)

[3] (Clark, 2018)

[4][4] (McGill, 2015)

[5] (Clark, 2018)

[6] a term proposed by Michael Shacklock in 1995

[7] (David S. Butler, 2000)

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