I’ll be honest, I hadn’t even heard of sciatica until a couple of months ago. Essentially, it’s back pain and – I’m ashamed to admit – I never really had much sympathy for people who suffered from it. Back pain was a problem for other people, not for me.
But now I have a deep and uncomfortable understanding of sciatica and – perhaps more importantly – the threat it poses to my chosen career. When doctors and physios tell a motoring writer to avoid driving and sitting down, you know there’s trouble ahead. Thankfully – touch wood – I appear to be on the mend now, but for two consecutive weeks I couldn’t even sit in a car, let alone drive one.
This isn’t a quest for sympathy. It’s not a cry for help. Rather it’s an explanation as to why I’ve been so quiet and why PetrolBlog has suffered from a lack of fresh content. Quite simply, the pain has been horrendous and the unimaginable number of tablets I’ve had to swallow seem to have stifled what little creativity I had before sciatica reared its ugly head.
To the editors and publishers who have been patient with me, huge thanks. To the press officers and PR people I have let down at the last minute, sincere apologies. I’ve missed some dream drives, the Paris Motor Show and the chance to get behind the wheel of some cars I couldn’t wait to drive. The pain has been bad, but the embarrassment of letting people down has been worse.
But what is sciatica and why does it have such an impact on driving? Well, the excellent NHS website will tell you the sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in your body, running from your pelvis, through your bum, down both legs and ending at your feet. When the sciatic nerve is irritated, the pain travels down one of your legs, which in my case is the right leg.
The NHS will also tell you that the pain can range from mild to very painful, so I’m assuming I’m in the latter category. It can also last from a couple of days to a year, but more often than not it will clear up in six weeks. That’s true in my experience, with the pain subsiding after a couple of months, allowing me to reduce the intake of tablets from lots and lots to merely quite a lot.
I can now sit down, which whilst sounding trivial, is a huge step forward following a period when pulling up a chair was impossible. Curiously, driving is perfectly fine in some cars, whilst others can cause discomfort and pain.
Fortunately I’m currently running an automatic Citroën Grand C4 Picasso for Diesel Car which – thanks to a seriously long list of options – benefits from Nappa leather seats with heaters and a massage function. I’ve always loved heated seats, but for sciatica suffers they become almost essential, helping to ease the pain on longer drives. The massage function would previously have felt like a needless indulgence, but over the past few weeks it has been absolute bliss.
And credit to Citroën for the seats in the Grand C4 Picasso which – against all the other cars I’ve driven whilst suffering – have offered the greatest level of support and comfort. My first long termer couldn’t have come at a better time.
Other cars have been a mixed bag. It was impossible to drive a Peugeot 308, almost to the point where I was forced to leave it by the side of the A30. It also led to me pulling out of the MPG Marathon, in which I was due to compete in the very same 308. I also found it hard driving a Citroën C4 Cactus to the MINI media day, but had absolutely no problem driving the MINI One a few hours later. The 5-door MINI Hatch – no problem. The Nissan Qashqai, yesterday – uncomfortable.
The Vauxhall Corsa – a day before my holiday – seriously painful. And yet two days later I was careering down a Welsh hill on a mountain bike.
And here’s the key. Whilst driving can be difficult, exercise most certainly isn’t. A 30-minute walk after breakfast relieves the symptoms and sets you up for the day. A week of mountain biking in Wales saw me returning home full of vim and vigour. But a couple of days sat at my desk and a bit of driving set me back again. I’ll be avoiding long distance driving for the time being, but I will be turning my garden into a mountain bike trail.
When you’re behind the wheel, there are a number of things you can do to relieve the pain. Finding a good driving position is essential – don’t just get in and drive. Adjust the seat so that the lower part of your back is supported, using lumbar support if your car offers it. Make sure the pedals are positioned squarely in front of you and – trivial as it may seem – adjust the mirrors so that you’re not having to move your head.
Looking behind can be painful, so make use of reversing mirrors if fitted and take advantage of heated seats. If not – don’t laugh – a hot water bottle can provide some mild comfort. On longer drives, take regular breaks and – if possible – share the drive with someone else.
As for me, I’m thankful I’ve had access to an excellent press car as a brief drive in the Honda highlighted just how far car seats have progressed. The seats in the Accord – whilst soft and squishy – lack any kind of support and can leave you in real pain.
I’m also coming to terms with the fact that I’m getting old and have been neglecting my back for too long. I always knew my height would cause problems, but I didn’t expect the issues to appear so suddenly and with such ferocity. From now on, I’ll be watching my posture, avoiding heavy lifting and doing lots of exercises.
Seriously, think about your driving position. Opportunities for motoring writers who can’t drive or sit down are few and far between and although I feel my career progression has suffered over the past few weeks, I’m hopeful that the worst is now behind me and I can get back to spouting more waffle and bunk. Whether it was the pain or the painkillers, sciatica took me to a low place where I was contemplating a change of career. Dark times for me, but arguably a ray of sunshine for those forced to read my words.
As for PetrolBlog, stay tuned for some exciting* changes. Watch this space, more news soon…
*exciting is probably over-egging it slightly. The changes are more lacklustre and mediocre.