Hiking with Sciatica

As many of you know, I have been dealing with Hip Dysplasia now for several years since finding out that I was actually born with this hip abnormality.  I have had hip pain since my 2014 thru-hike of the PCT, and subsequently, I’ve had several hip surgeries to correct the problem.  In June I had my last hip surgery to remove the hardware (screws) in my hip, and my hope had been to have the whole Hip Dysplasia saga behind me after this final recovery period, and be back in top hiking shape at this point.

Well, life is never so simple.  About a month before my hardware removal, I started experiencing the symptoms of sciatica: nerve pain down my left leg.  My PT helped to diagnose the problem, and I tried exercises to help it, and then hoped that some forced rest with my last surgery would knock it out.  It didn’t, and the pain persists.

It has been about 12 weeks since I first developed sciatica nerve pain, and let me tell you, it is hard and unrewarding to be in pain for 12 weeks after going through two and a half years of surgeries and recoveries in order to get to this point.  The pain itself is annoying, but what’s worse is the lack of a timeline, the lack of prognosis, and the need to constantly cancel or reschedule hikes and trips due to pain without knowing when or how this will ever go away.  The sciatica pain flares up sometimes making it hard to even walk around the house, and other times it subsides and allows me to do some less strenuous hikes.

After a lot of research, I decided that I would cut sitting out of my lifestyle and try to do some flat walking on a regular basis as pain allowed.  In general, this seemed to be the recommendation for sciatica patients.  I started using a standing desk, and I would lie down instead of sit whenever I wanted a rest from standing.

That was going well until last Thursday when I decided to go to the movies.  I sat for almost 2 hours.  Big mistake.  When I stood up I couldn’t walk without shooting pain down my leg.  That night my mental health plummeted.  I saw no hope.  I would have to cancel another hike I was supposed to guide on Saturday, and cancel my personal hike for the weekend too.  I had no other plans for the weekend besides hiking.  Nothing to look forward to.  Just another day of trying to stand all fucking day long.  It felt like no way to live.  So unfair and so demoralizing.  With every step I was forcefully reminded with an electric shock down my the back of my left leg.

On Saturday I spent the morning lying on my living room floor while Dirt Stew was out guiding a hike.  I decided to take a Gapapentin for nerve pain to see what effect it would have.  I was so bored and depressed, but I did feel somewhat better physically.  I decided I wanted to spend a night in the woods and try to catch up with our friends who had planned a backpacking trip through the Middle Prong Wilderness.

Dirt Stew came home and I told him I wanted to go backpacking..  He tried to talk me out of it, for fear that I would do more damage, but there was no way I was spending the rest of the day standing around annoyed and depressed.  If I was going to do that, I may as well do it in the woods.

We packed up and headed out on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We decided to park at Devil’s Courthouse and find the MST and camp somewhere along it.  Once I started walking, I immediately started to feel human again.  It was so good to be outside and in such a beautiful section of trail.  The Hermit Thrushes were singing their mystic songs which echoed through the dense forest. It was surprisingly cool.  It had just rained, and the trail was full of puddles and mud and I was delighted to stomp through them getting my feet and legs dirty.  Sections of the MST were quite overgrown with brambles and the thorny bushes left cuts on my legs.  We wound up hiking for an hour and a half to Silvermine Bald which has some great camping spots.

View of Davidson Valley, Pilot Mountain, and the ridge that the Art Loeb Follows

We got to our campsite just after sunset and I sat on the soft forest floor rummaging through our food bags while Dirt Stew set up the tent.  My legs were covered in wet mud and scrapes and my shoes and socks were sopping wet and muddy, and I was hungry.  For the first time in weeks I felt alive again.

We ate and got into the tent just as darkness fell, and the minute I closed my eyes, I was fast asleep.  I woke up just as it started to get light out around 6AM, and I felt reasonably well rested.  We quickly packed up, knowing that we had to intersect our friends on the MST at Haywood Gap before they passed through there, and we didn’t really know when that would be.  We got up and packed up within 15-20 minutes.  “We’ve still got it!” I said with regards to how quickly we packed up.

We hiked back to our car and drove down the road to Haywood Gap.  We got out of our car and started getting our packs out of the trunk when our friends Donner (AT class of 2010) and company emerged from the forest on the other side of the woods.

“NO WAY!” exclaimed Donner as he saw us.

Good timing!  It was so good to see them again, and we donned our packs and followed the group into the woods to continue on the MST.  We chatted and caught up with friends we had hiked with before, and introduced ourselves to some new friends in the group, and all the while, I felt on top of the world.

We knew this section of trail, but the last time we had hiked it was in April, and the trail looked completely different now.  Back in April, the trail was covered in Trout Lily and May Apples, and now it was overgrown with stinging nettles, black berries and brambles.  It was still fairly flat and fast going, and with the distraction of talking with friends, the miles went by quickly.

We passed on intersection that obviously led over to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then passed another intersection that we assumed did the same thing until we started going downhill quite a lot.  Dirt Stew asked me if I wanted to turn around at this point since I was going to suffer if I had to do much uphill hiking.  We looked at the map and decided that we would keep going until the intersection with the Fork Ridge Trail, which is where the trail would really start to go downhill, and our friends would be taking that route back to their cars which were parked on 215 at the bottom.

Well, eventually we figured out that we missed the turn for the MST at the junction with the Buckeye Trail, and we had been heading down the Buckeye Trail for quite some time now.  We knew exactly where we made the wrong turn.  I wasn’t keen on going back up, and I also was having a great time hiking with my friends, so we decided that we would keep hiking with them down to their vehicles and then get a ride back up to our car.  I felt bad inconveniencing our new friends, but I also knew we could probably hitch-hike if we needed to.  I just wanted to keep hiking.

We got to the bottom of the Buckeye Trail soon after which there is a stream to ford.  Since my feet were already wet, I just walked through it, but others took the time to take off their shoes.  The water was nice and cool, and the stream was beautiful.  Bee balm and Turks Cap and Carolina Lilies were blooming everywhere.

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Eyeing a ford while the dogs lead the way through the cool water.

 

Stream with a nice waterfall

Do I look as happy as I feel?

 

Carolina Lily


Bee Balm

We finished the hike on the gravel road leading down to 215 and caught a ride with Lindsay and Taylor back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We certainly owe them a favor for getting us back to our car!

Finishing the hike on a gravel road.  Dirt Stew is eyeing the lilies.

I can’t tell you how good it was to spend the night in the woods, spend a day with friends, and spend a good amount of time in nature walking.  It was the best therapy I could have asked for, and I plan on doing it again very soon.

In a week I will see a Spine Surgeon to hopefully find the source of my Sciatica Pain, and I now believe more than ever that the final cure for this will be another long distance hike.  I hope sooner rather than later I will find myself down that path.

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4 thoughts on “Hiking with Sciatica

  1. Nature therapy is the best therapy. I’m sorry for all of your pain troubles—hope the solution is soon! Also: do tell, next long hike? CDT??? I’m hoping we can do another thru in the next 5-10 years when the kid gets a bit bigger. Might be a shorter thru but hopefully we can make something happen.

    Looks like a gorgeous hike!

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    • We have lots of long hikes on our list… you’ll just have to wait and find out, as we haven’t set anything in stone yet. But it does look like a thru of the BMT is likely in Nov/Dec as a warm up to see if I’ve still got it…

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  2. I had sciatica last year. I did Iyengar yoga for three months and I used an inversion table. This year I am pain free. You need to get an MRI. My problem was L5-S1. I could see it in the MRI. Inversion therapy saved my life.

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