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Study: 2 in 5 People Get Sciatica. Are You at Risk?

Regular Walking and Biking Linked to Decreased Sciatica Hospitalization Rates

Did you know that an estimated two out of every five people have sciatica? This diagnosis normally stems from a herniated disc in the lower back. In addition, a damaged nerve root can result in shooting pain along the sciatic nerve — extending down the back of the thigh and legs.

Now, multiple factors may exacerbate someone’s risk of developing sciatica, however, a recent study proves that daily walking and biking are crucial in sciatica prevention.

Let’s examine.

The location, Finland…

The Study

Researchers investigated data on about 35,000 Finland citizens over a 30-year follow up period. They determined that smoking paired with obesity boosted the chance of hospitalization for sciatica patients by over 33 percent, while those who chose to commute via foot or bike actually decreased that prospect by 33 percent.

The lead study author, Dr. Rahman Shiri of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki, Finland, says, “The harmful effects of overweight, obesity, and smoking, and the protective effect of walking or cycling to work on hospitalization are substantial.”

Shiri reiterated that although a sciatica diagnosis rarely commands surgery, it is recognized as a chronic condition causing severe lower back pain.

“These findings have important implications for prevention,” Shiri advised Reuters Health in an email.

The Numbers

The team interpreted 34,589 patient records of four other long-term studies over a 12-30 year follow-up period. Out of those numbers, there were 1,259 hospitalizations for sciatica.

The risk factors examined include:

  • Smoking
  • Body mass index
  • Obesity
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Education
  • Occupation
  • The frequency, intensity, and duration of physical activity

The Findings

Even though smoking did raise the prospect of hospitalization for sciatica patients by 33 percent, previous smokers were actually not at an increased risk. Obesity did increase the hospitalization rate by 36 percent, particularly ‘abdominal fat’, which accelerated the development to 41 percent.

Meanwhile, opting to commute places via walking or biking lessened the danger by 33 percent, which remained accurate despite body mass index and exercise.

“Other types of leisure time physical activities had no effect on hospitalization,” Shiri added. “That was somewhat unexpected.”

The authors of this study notated that daily to weekly low-level physical activity that includes walking and biking were said to be effective methods of prevention due to the fact that they do not hurt the lower back. On the contrary, higher-intensity exercise is considered dangerous and should be avoided for the sciatica patient.

The Limitation Factor

A reported limitation of this study is the fact that the data was self-reported, and the researchers were not able to confirm what additional health determinants were involved with the corresponding hospitalization rates. Were they solely for sciatica symptoms? The authors do not know.

The study also used multiple questions regarding ‘leisure-time physical activity’ and two of those surveys didn’t have adequate enough data necessary to distinguish ‘potential gender-related differences’.

“It could be, for example, that there is something else associated with smoking and independently makes people more likely to be admitted to the hospital for sciatica,” answered Professor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, David Coggon, at the University of Southampton in the UK.

The study’s authors wrote that future investigations should examine long-term data related to the named factors and then estimate that information against the exercise level directly.

Coggon then went on, “Perhaps, more importantly, future studies should look at the major changes in back pain and sciatica occurrence over time.”

He also added that more people than ever are taking leave of absences from work because of severe lower back pain as compared to the 1950s and 1970s.

“That said, there are plenty of other good reasons not to smoke, not to be obese, and to exercise,” Coggon concluded.

The fact remains that it’s all about changing your bad habits into good ones. Do like the study says and consider walking somewhere instead of driving. Every little bit helps.

And for the two out of every five people who live with sciatica, know that a little bit can go along way when it comes to pain relief. 

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