How to manage sciatica in the workplace

If you’re suffering from sciatica, a form of lower back pain, you’ll know that sitting for long periods at work can be a real struggle. Even more concerning, it could be that sitting for long periods has contributed to the problem in the first place.

According to the British Chiropractic Association, most people will suffer one or more episodes of back pain during their lives. While an episode of back pain may begin as a result of lifting something awkwardly or from a specific incident, there are many cases which develop gradually as a result of poor posture, an uncomfortable work position or repetitive strain.

Back pain can be painful and persistent, due to muscle spasm and inflammation. But there are measures you can take to minimise pain and aid recovery. There’s also a lot you can do to prevent a recurrence. Your employer has responsibilities to help you too.

What is sciatica?

Sciatica refers to pain or discomfort associated with the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve starts in the lower back and runs down the buttocks and the back of the legs. Pain generally occurs when there is pressure on the nerve. Sciatic pain is commonly described as starting in the lower back and shooting into the buttocks or down the back of the legs.

Sciatica describes the symptoms of the condition. The common symptoms are pain, tingling, numbness or weakness in the lower back, leg and/or buttocks. It’s not often that a particular incident causes sciatica. It’s more likely that symptoms have developed gradually over time.

Your employer’s responsibilities

Statistics compiled by the Government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2016, reveal that 41 per cent of work related illnesses are attributable to musculoskeletal disorders (including sciatica). In fact, an average 8,784,000 working days are lost each year because of work related musculoskeletal illnesses.

Your employer is responsible for preventing or minimising the risk of you suffering back injuries. There are strict guidelines with regard to manual lifting at work as laid out in the Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 (MHOR). The Display Screen Equipment (DSE) Regulations 1992 covers the use of devices or equipment with graphic display screens. Under DSE Regs, employers are required to assess computer workstations, including the suitability of your chair. They must also allow employees to take adequate breaks during prolonged computer use.

If you are suffering from sciatica at work, or any other form of back pain, speak to your employer straight away. They should want to help resolve any work related issues to keep you healthy in the workplace. This is especially important if you suspect your workstation is contributing, or you need to factor in some breaks.

How to manage sciatica at work

It’s easy to reach for the painkillers when you are suffering from sciatic pain. Painkillers may bring obvious relief, they don’t address the cause. Most people think rest will help. Unfortunately, rest won’t help for most types of back pain.

It’s a good idea to consult your GP if your symptoms persist to rule out anything serious.  Acupuncture, spinal manipulation and massage can help.

There are some things you can do to aid recovery. Here are 3 great tips to help you on the road to recovery:

  1. Heat and cold packs

Either heat or cold packs may help. Some people benefit from using both in alternation. Heat works by bringing blood to the area, increasing the inflammatory process, which is essentially healing.  Heat relaxes tight muscles, which may be contributing to the pain.

Cold packs draw blood away from the area and reduce inflammation. While inflammation is an important part of the healing process, it can cause more pain, so finding a balance with heat and cold is the best way forward. Use an ice pack or a heat pack wrapped in a tea towel on the lower spine for 10 minutes. Repeat hourly if it gives relief. Heat packs can be used on surrounding tight muscles as well.

Or use a heat pack for 5-10 minutes followed by a cold pack for 5-10 minutes and repeat as required.

  1. Stretching exercises

Stretching exercises are extremely helpful. Try these exercises as recommended on the NHS website. Repeat the exercises 3 times each day. You may wish to take small cushion and an exercise mat into work.

  1. Get moving

Sitting for long periods will more than likely make matters worse. Tell your employer about the problem and let them know you will need to take regular breaks from sitting. Get up and walk around at least once every hour for about 5 minutes. Get your employer to arrange a thorough check of your workstation.

Getting outside for a gentle walk at least twice a day should also help. It doesn’t have to be for long; even 10 minutes will help a lot.

It’s important you flag up the problem as soon as you can. The sooner you start addressing your back pain, then the more likely it is that you’ll get better quickly. Take a look at your diet. Eating healthily and drinking plenty of water will help, as will a few good nights’ sleep.