It is now over fourteen years since I incurred a manual handling injury that was to change my life forever. My L5/S1 lumbar disc prolapsed, and I commenced a life of persistent pain and disability. Gone were the days I could walk freely, sit where I wanted, stand in queues, lift, and carry, and generally live without pain. Instead, sciatica moved in to accompany me for every second of every day for the rest of my life.
I guess I would have to characterise my sciatica as being at the more extreme end as for me it includes a strong element of neuropathic pain and numbness. I have been fortunate that gradually over the years my sciatica has improved, perhaps mainly due to skilled help from a physiotherapist, and some sheer hard work, but also due to the passage of time, natural healing, and the rejection of strong pain medications.
Following my manual handling injury, I was hospitalised for five days. I couldn’t walk, sit down, or stand. I was in excruciating pain and on high levels of pain medication including morphine. My life had been turned upside down. It took weeks before I could walk anything more than a few yards, and probably months before I could sit down for more than a few minutes. The neuropathic pain I was experiencing was severe.
I continued to live my life the best I could. The pain was causing me to constantly lean across to my left side, which I was aware of but couldn’t stop. I would do anything not to put any pressure on what I viewed as my injured leg.
Of course, it wasn’t actually my leg that was injured, rather a sciatic nerve root in my back, but even though I knew the truth of the situation it still FELT as though it was my leg that was the problem. That after all is where I FELT the pain and other sciatica symptoms.
Drawing and communicating my pain and other sciatic symptoms
Thankfully not everyone has the experience of living with sciatica, and in particular sciatica with neuropathic pain. I have found it difficult sometimes to describe the symptoms I experience to others, even experienced clinicians. Recently I have worked with a talented artist, Anna Fraser from Exmoor, to create drawings that for me describe my pain and other sciatic symptoms, and hopefully communicate my symptoms to others.
The following diagrams and explanations don’t cover all my symptoms, notably they miss out the associated back pain difficulties I have, but I hope they can in some way explain to others how my sciatica can feel. It is perhaps worth saying that I don’t get all the symptoms at once! My condition is very variable, largely depending on what I physically do.
Lightning bolts and Poundland!
As part of my sciatica I have neuropathic pain. I can feel really strong, but relatively short-lived, electrical type pain in my leg which I describe as being just like lightning bolts of pain.
I also now think, essentially in a jovial way, of having one leg bought from John Lewis and the other, my sciatica leg, having been bought from Poundland! To me its a way of describing to myself, and occasionally others, that my sciatic leg feels as though it doesn’t work as well as the other one, and just hasn’t got the same quality of experience! It captures my situation beautifully!
My leg feels like a tree trunk
Depending on what I physically do, I can experience significant numbness in my sciatica leg. My leg can feel heavy and thick. When this happens I often think of my leg as feeling like a tree trunk.
Fairy lights and tennis balls
Again depending on what I physically do, I experience what I can only describe as hundreds of small electrical currents racing around my leg, ‘twinkling’ as they go. I think of these symptoms as Christmas fairy lights. I find the image of fairy lights as comforting and helps me to be less annoyed by what is occurring.
On the other hand one of my more difficult and unpleasant symptoms is that of walking on a tennis ball. Thankfully this symptom isn’t always present, and the tennis ball I ‘feel’ varies in size from a deflated version to a fully solid tennis ball, but when it is it makes walking very painful and difficult. The idea of the tennis ball came about as I needed to communicate my difficulties to my clinicians, and this described the symptom beautifully. I don’t think this is a common symptom of sciatica.
Walking with a block of ice
And the final image is that of walking with a block of ice. My sciatic leg can often feel much colder than my other, which can be a really unpleasant experience at times. It does literally feel like my leg is encased in ice!
I would like to gratefully acknowledge the artist behind my sciatica drawings, Anna Fraser from Exmoor. Anna patiently worked with me to understand and draw my idea of pain in a way that I did not have the ability to do myself.