Pope Francis apologised for staying sitting during an audience Friday, blaming the “troublesome” sciatica that has caused him to cancel several events in recent weeks.
“I would like to speak to you standing up but sciatica is a troublesome guest,” the 84-year-old told members of the Roman Rota, a top Catholic Church tribunal.
“So I apologise and will speak sitting down,” he added at the meeting marking the opening of the Holy See’s judicial year.
The Argentine pontiff was forced to delegate two masses on Sunday and Monday and postpone his New Year’s greeting Monday for ambassadors to the Holy See due to a bout of sciatica.
He also skipped New Year’s masses at St Peter’s Basilica as a result of the chronic nerve condition that causes pain in his hip, and for which he wears orthopaedic shoes.
However, he did lead the Angelus prayer on Sunday lunchtime as scheduled.
On the way back from a trip to Brazil in 2013, the pope told reporters about suffering a bout of sciatica in the weeks after being elected head of the Catholic Church earlier that year.
“The worst thing that happened — excuse me — was an attack of sciatica — really! — that I had the first month, because I was sitting in an armchair to do interviews and it hurt,” he said when asked about his time in office so far.
“Sciatica is very painful, very painful! I don’t wish it on anyone!”
The pope walks with a slight limp as a result of the sciatica but has had a generally healthy life, despite having had part of his lung removed when he was a young man after developing pleurisy.
He received the coronavirus vaccine earlier this month alongside his predecessor, former pope Benedict XVI, who lives in a converted monastery in the Vatican gardens.
So, what is sciatica?
According to experts at Mayo Clinic, sciatica refers to pain that radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve, which branches from the lower back through the hips and buttocks and down each leg. Typically, sciatica affects only one side of the body.
Sciatica is a term used to describe a set of symptoms caused by an underlying medical condition; it is not a medical diagnosis.
Common medical conditions that may cause sciatica include: a herniated lumbar disc, lumbar spinal stenosis, lumbar degenerative disc disease, general degenerative changes in vertebrae or discs, spondylolisthesis, muscle spasm and/or inflammation of the lumbar and/or pelvic muscles, and sacroiliac joint dysfunction.
“Rarely, tumors, blood clots, or other conditions in the lower spine may cause sciatica,” physicians say.
Sciatica most commonly occurs when a herniated disk, bone spur on the spine or narrowing of the spine (spinal stenosis) compresses part of the nerve. This causes inflammation, pain and often some numbness in the affected leg.
Although the pain associated with sciatica can be severe, most cases resolve with non-operative treatments in a few weeks. People who have severe sciatica that’s associated with significant leg weakness or bowel or bladder changes might be candidates for surgery.
What does sciatica feel like?
According to physicians at the Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, USA, the symptoms of sciatica are commonly felt along the path of the large sciatic nerve.
According to online platform, Spine Health, sciatica is often characterised by one or more of the following features:
Pain. Sciatica pain is typically felt like a constant burning sensation or a shooting pain starting in the lower back or buttock and radiating down the front or back of the thigh and leg and/or feet.
Numbness. Sciatica pain may be accompanied by numbness in the back of the leg. Sometimes, tingling and/or weakness may also be present.
One-sided symptoms. Sciatica typically affects one leg. The condition often results in a feeling of heaviness in the affected leg.1 Rarely, both legs may be affected together.
Posture-induced symptoms. Sciatica symptoms may feel worse while sitting, trying to stand up, bending the spine forward, twisting the spine, lying down, and/or while coughing. The symptoms may be relieved by walking or applying a heat pack over the rear pelvic region.
Age. Age-related changes in the spine, such as herniated disks and bone spurs, are the most common causes of sciatica.
Obesity. By increasing the stress on your spine, excess body weight can contribute to the spinal changes that trigger sciatica.
Occupation. A job that requires you to twist your back, carry heavy loads or drive a motor vehicle for long periods might play a role in sciatica, but there’s no conclusive evidence of this link.
Prolonged sitting. People who sit for prolonged periods or have a sedentary lifestyle are more likely to develop sciatica than active people are.
Diabetes. This condition, which affects the way your body uses blood sugar, increases your risk of nerve damage.
Although most people recover fully from sciatica, often without treatment, sciatica can potentially cause permanent nerve damage. Seek immediate medical attention if you have:
- Loss of feeling in the affected leg
- Weakness in the affected leg
- Loss of bowel or bladder function
It’s not always possible to prevent sciatica, and the condition may recur. The following can play a key role in protecting your back:
Exercise regularly. To keep your back strong, pay special attention to your core muscles — the muscles in your abdomen and lower back that are essential for proper posture and alignment. Ask your doctor to recommend specific activities.
Maintain proper posture when you sit. Choose a seat with good lower back support, armrests and a swivel base. Consider placing a pillow or rolled towel in the small of your back to maintain its normal curve. Keep your knees and hips level.
Use good body mechanics. If you stand for long periods, rest one foot on a stool or small box from time to time. When you lift something heavy, let your lower extremities do the work. Move straight up and down. Keep your back straight and bend only at the knees. Hold the load close to your body. Avoid lifting and twisting simultaneously. Find a lifting partner if the object is heavy or awkward.
(AFP/Mayo Clinic/Spine-Health/Cleveland Clinic)
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