This article first appeared in Today's Dallas Woman, Jan. 1998

Leg Pain

Most people put up with a lot of things in their lives -- including chronic leg and foot pain. The thought is that aches and pains in the legs and feet are simply the result of daily living -- the nature of the two-legged beast.

But aches and pains in the legs, feet and toes can be more than just a "hard day on the feet." It can signify definite problems with the lower back and spine.

The association between the lower back and legs is obvious to anyone who glances at the human body. The legs and back share a nerve called the sciatic. One of the body's largest and longest nerves, the sciatic consists of five roots that begin at the lower back, join at the pelvis, and travel to the muscles and joints of the thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet and toes.

When the sciatic nerve is healthy, the lower body is functional and pain-free. The trouble occurs when the sciatic nerve becomes inflamed. This condition, called sciatica, can be a literal pain in the legs. Sometimes that pain takes the form of a simple ache. At other times, a person with sciatica suffers "pins-and-needles," numbness or even stabbing spasms. If left untreated, the pain becomes worse. For folks with severe sciatica, simple actions such as walking, bending, sitting down, or standing are terribly uncomfortable, if not almost impossible.

Another problem with sciatica is that most people misunderstand the cause. The common belief is that sciatica only results from a severe accident to the back. Such an accident causes a protruded or ruptured disc. When this happens, the soft material inside the vertebrae protrudes from the disc and presses on the spinal cord.

But sciatic inflammation can also result from disc degeneration. Everyone experiences disc degeneration to a degree -- it comes from the daily wear and tear of living. Such degeneration also leads to an easily ruptured disc. One of our patients ruptured a disc when she sneezed. Another ruptured a disc while standing by the sink and washing dishes.

Sciatica can also be caused from vertebra or pelvic misalignment which puts pressure on the nerve and creates pain, numbness or tingling down the leg. Chiropractic treatments can realign the vertebra which will take the irritation off the nerve. This in turn will naturally relieve the pain.

The best way to avoid sciatic-based pain is to treat your back like your best friend. Practicing good back hygiene includes maintaining proper posture while sitting and standing, sleeping on a firm mattress (on your back, not your stomach) and wearing well-fitting shoes.

In addition, preventative health care, including a healthy eating program and exercise, can offset back -- and ultimately leg -- problems. A diet rich in calcium strengthens bones and nerves, while one light in fat can take off the pounds (as well as weight-induced stress on the spine). Exercise and stretching, especially when done to strengthen the abdomen and the back, can both prevent sciatica and help eliminate recurrences. But take note -- before attempting any new exercise program, especially one that involves your back, talk with your chiropractor or other health care professional.

Also make sure that your state of mind is as tension-free as possible. Believe it or not, many people don't experience stress in their shoulders or neck - it's the lower back that takes on the brunt of the problem. Years of anxiety-induced low-back stiffness can eventually lead to a ruptured disc and sciatica. The best way to counteract this is to learn to recognize and reduce stress. If you find you're in an anxiety provoking situation, take a few deep breaths or go outside and take a walk. In addition to relieving bodily stress, walking can help strengthen back muscles. Other aids to lower back relaxation include biofeedback, meditation and yoga.

It's also important to listen to your body. Don't just shrug off back or leg pain as one of those "things you have to live with." If the pain is chronic or radiates into your legs, make an appointment to see your chiropractor or other health care professional immediately.

While many people view their legs as a vehicle to get from one place to another, health care professionals know that pain in the legs can be a warning sign that more attention needs to be paid to the back.

Suzan J. Smith, D.C., is a chiropractor in Carrollton. She teaches yoga classes on a regular basis. She has released a yoga video for beginners and intermediates and a second yoga video for pregnant women.

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