To Sciatica and Back: A Potter's Journey
by John P. Glick
This article first appeared in
Studio Potter, Volume 15, Number 2 (June 1987).
Copyright © 1987 by Studio Potter. All rights reserved.
May be reproduced with permission of Studio Potter.
We all share notions of invulnerability. We think we can go on forever being
strong and vital. "It can't happen here," we say until something does happen.
That commonest of all views is the most mistaken.
Though our bodies differ in size, physique, and inherent strength, they
have in common a predictable group of physical attributes. These features
are well known but become particularly important in regard to health issues
and work-connected stresses. What I share here comes from hard-won practical
experience, and from observation, reading, listening to fellow craftspersons,
and consultation with doctors and physical therapists.
No one will dispute the human body is marvelously designed. Essentially our
bodies are supported by skeletons and with a central structure called the
spine. Additionally we are tied together by a network of elastic members
called muscles, tendons, and ligaments that in turn are controlled by
an intricate organization of signal devices called nerves. I wish to call
attention to the vital interplay between the spine and the nerves running
parallel to it, because when these intricate parts break down, we begin to
malfunction. The resultant exquisite pain we experience is called sciatica.
Just what are the stresses on the back? The ideal position for the lumbar
spine is lying flat on your back; that puts only 25 pounds of force on
the disks. Lying on your side raises this to 75 pounds, while standing
generates 100 pounds of force. If you lean forward a bit, the force increases
to 150 pounds, and simply holding a 10-pound weight in that position
makes the stress jump to 220 pounds, nine times greater than lying flat on
your back. Imagine what happens when you lift a 5-pound bag of clay
incorrectly, with the spine in a rounded (flexed) position. In that case there
is 10 x 50, or 500, pounds of force or more on the lumbar spine.
What about the usual seated position at the potter's wheel? That generates
a minimum of 185 pounds of stress on the back, hour in and hour
out. Leaning to the right to view our work adds more stress. Coupled with
these strains, applying work pressures to the clay through our arms adds
even more. To cap it off, we often, unthinkingly, lift the finished pot while
leaning forward from a seated position. I recall vividly the terrible, aching
back I lived with for years, all the while not really questioning what was
The truth is we work at a profession equal in stress and strain to heavy
industrial labor, but we are poorly informed and are not trained to deal
with the inevitable stress or damage to our bodies. A complete turnabout on
these health issues is long overdue in schools. How many of us were taught
specifically about proper lifting techniques, or about spine stress, or about
the meaning of pain and the dangers it signals? My guess is that most of us
learn as I did, by going from pain to crisis and then seeking remedial help.
When I mention these matters in workshops, many people speak out,
encouraged perhaps to overcome their embarrassment at having hurt themselves.
Fellow potters are injuring themselves at an alarming rate, and
my message is that every time you risk damaging yourself through uninformed
work habits your future is at stake.
Before describing my own disk injury, however, I would like to make a
few comments about pain. First, I owe a greater understanding of pain to my
potter wife Susie Symons. Her own experience with a sports-related back
injury taught her about dealing with pain. Second, the critical lesson is that
pain is not normal; pain tells us something is wrong and something should
be done about it. For example, my reaction to a growing problem with
soreness in my elbow several years ago was to shrug it off as an occupational
necessity, a natural by-product of throwing and therefore acceptable.
I had to learn the opposite was true, then to seek physical therapy to
correct the problem through supportive exercises, which I now do four times
weekly at home.
The Ruptured Disk
"What you have to understand, John, is that disks become injured for a
variety of reasons. Don't forget, age alone tends to lessen their resiliency. You
have been working for twenty-two years in a seated, flexed, forward position,
and the disks in the lumbar area have been under terrific stress." These
words from my trusted physical therapist, Charles Dorando, sum up my
journey toward the injury called Classic Ruptured Disk Syndrome. The
disks - the cushions between the vertebrae - absorb shock and help us
bend and move. Given enough stress they can crack, and the fibrous core
material can eject into the surrounding spinal area. The condition known as
sciatica is the pain resulting from the pressure of this ejected material on
the sciatic nerve which runs down the leg. Trust me when I say it is a form
of exquisite pain you should avoid at all costs.
It is important to know what to do and what not to do in preserving and
promoting spinal health. The things on the not-to list are hidden in work
habits, attitudes, and mind sets contributing to injury. For example, do not
overwork or ignore pain. I overworked. I love my life as a potter, but
I overdid it, often working beyond fatigue and pain. The tendonitis in my
left elbow and those years of backaches were obvious signals. I excused
such nagging symptoms because of the good results of my life - the good
pots, earning a good livelihood, and the happy feelings about being a
creative artist. I equated the orderly flow of the days events with
well-being, unaware that pain is connected to health.
I adopted a work ethic imagined from potters of other times where
productivity per se was the goal. A strange, mixed blessing!
Then too there is traditional behavior in the studio. Watch the studio
assistant in your ceramics class heroically load the kiln by weight-lifting large
heavy shelves onto that last high niche in the top rear of the kiln. We have
abused the body through bad habits over the years. The seated throwing
position alone accounts for the single most damaging practice of potters.
When, in addition, you think of the numbers of flexed spine positions and
lifting activities potters subject themselves to, you will, I hope, agree with
my definition that our work is industrial labor.
Living With Sciatica
Living with sciatica is an utterly draining experience. That severe, electric
pain jolting down one or both legs is so bad for some people that they even
prefer crawling to walking. At the start of the pain, it is difficult to face the
fact that you have a serious back problem. I may well have aggravated
that condition by being bull-headed, trying to finish that last bit of studio
work, or giving that last workshop, instead of taking an honest look at the
But sciatica has a way of reducing life to basic survival in short order. I
sought help from my physical therapist who immediately began supportive
therapy involving ice packs to temporarily ease nerve/muscle involvement,
and then careful explorative massage, test procedures and observation
to track the area of involvement accurately.
Believe me, I urge you never to try self-evaluation on this subject. The
nerve involvement is far too critical, and the possibility of doing harm is
too real. I chose to work exclusively through my therapist because he has
worked extensively with spinal injuries. He works in rehabilitation therapy in
postoperative situations with surgeons. He is, above all, conservative and
seeks physical rather than surgical remedies whenever possible.
The Four-Five Lumbar Disk
The number four-five disk is between the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae
and is the one affected by the stresses already mentioned. When the potter is
seated at the wheel, the stance causes the disk to bulge backward (posterior
bulge) due to the strong forces produced by rounding the back. Side
(lateral) forces are applied also because we tend to lean to the right as we
Tracking the nerve involved can most often help identify the type of
bulge or its deterioration. I was fortunate that CAT scans (sophisticated X
ray techniques) confirmed the existence of a directional bulge of the
pulpy disk material. The goals of therapy were then designed to support the
area of trauma through treatment and exercises.
Essentially the program I undertook involved wearing a back brace for
three-and-a-half months, seven days a week, to keep the spine in a slightly
hyperextended (arched back) position. I slept each night with a lumbar
support pad belted to my back, did not sit except for rare instances, knelt or
stood at meals, lay bellydown to relax, read, or watch TV, and when absolutely
necessary I was driven in a van and almost always flat on my back.
During this time the prospect of surgery was examined with a neurosurgeon
recommended by my physical therapist, especially when progress
toward pain-free living seemed slow. I also consulted a number of potters
and friends who had gone through the laminectomy (disk operation) procedure.
The prospect of being out of the studio for a six-month recuperation
period held no appeal, but any hope for relief from pain seemed worth
I was fortunate. The supportive physical therapy began to have an effect,
and the pain began to leave. I learned that in some cases of disk injury the
ejected disk material is retracted away from the sciatic nerve or is reabsorbed
by surrounding tissues. At this writing I am scheduled to have a second CAT
scan to further confirm what physical evidence indicates. It is now nine
months since the injury became part of my life. I have been pain-free for
about four months. I live a more informed, careful life, and work with
new awareness and respect for the real issues involved. Above all, I am
grateful for the chance to continue to be a potter.
If I could give a lasting gift to all potters, it would not be a wonderful
glaze formula or new tool. Instead I would give the gift of awareness about
the wise use of our bodies. In the discussion that follows, I outline the
rethinking processes I went through, and the technical solutions that I now
employ in my studio. All are aimed at making productive and vigorous work
possible while being far safer. Fair warning, however. Old, comfortable,
even if painful, habits die hard.
Rethinking the Wheel
The seated throwing position requires immediate attention in the search for
better spinal care. By looking at historical precedents, talking with fellow
potters, and on advice from my therapist I chose the stand up approach. I
began my trials by piling up bricks under the legs of my Soldner wheel to
discover a good working height. I determined the wheel head should be
level with my navel. If set any lower, I was forced to bend from the waist to
get a proper attack for throwing, which would have duplicated the flexion
stresses that were the problem in the first place.
I now rely on my elbows tucked into my rib cage instead of resting my
elbows on my thighs during throwing as before. The accompanying
photographs show an extension framework under the wheel frame. I use a
combination of 1-inch angle iron and lightweight, square, mild steel tube of two
compatible sizes. The slip fit of the tubes allows for an adjustable height
option. Large 5/16-inch nuts are welded to the outer tube and a sturdy, short
bolt passes through the outer tube and clamps against the inner tube
(leg). Naturally, I thought of the variety of wheel heights that might be
considered for different throwing situations, especially tall pots. The
adjustable leg option is one useful idea. Also a simple, sturdy, foldaway,
wood platform will serve well when extra height is needed. At navel height
I have no trouble throwing pots 16 to 18 inches high, and that suits almost all my
needs. The mobility of the Soldner foot controller allows perfect access
and positioning in the standing throwing posture. A simple nudge slides the
foot pedal from side to side as needed to rest your legs. An antifatigue mat
lessens leg strain. Off the wheel, I also ride a stationary bike regularly to
promote good muscle tone, and have no leg fatigue whatsoever.
Throwing at the standing position, using a modified Soldner professional
model wheel. The wheel head is at navel height, which works well for most
throwing needs and prevents the tendency to lean forward.
Extension to the existing wheel frame using two compatible sizes of
lightweight steel tube and 1-inch angle iron.
Lock bolts on legs for height adjustment.
Equally important is the use of a back support. Daily use of lumbar support
pillows in chairs or while driving clearly taught me their benefits. This is just as
true for someone who has not sustained disk damage. I started by measuring
the height of my own lumbar region, and made a few prototype support
pads. You will note in the photographs the support comes in two places: the
upper for the lumbar area and the lower for the buttocks. The lower is vital in
providing balanced support, allowing one to take a slight weight off the
supporting leg (one leg is on the controller). The lower pad is not a seat per
se. I lean back slightly as work proceeds and the forces associated with
throwing gently and comfortably promote good contact with the two pads.
The pads are simply wood frames with 4-inch seat foam padding held in position
by vinyl fabric stapled to the rear frame. After throwing intermittently
throughout the day I have high energy and no backache.
The back brace positioned to support the lumbar and buttocks areas.
Pads are foam cushions with vinyl coverings.
Three ideas for general placement of back rest pads. (Drawing by Alexsis Lahti.)
To accommodate larger diameter wares, I built a removable section or
spacer in my mounting bracket, held together with 1/4-inch bolts which
readily slip out. It is easy to step off to one side when larger diameter pots
are made, and I am away from the support pads only momentarily so
back strain is not a question. It is essential to remember that the back
support will prevent your lumbar spine from rounding and thereby placing the
bulging backward thrust on the disks. An alternative to the wall mount idea
is anchoring the support pads from the floor, ceiling, or wheel frame itself.
The basic mounting of the support pad is accomplished with 1/4-inch bolts slipped
into place (no nuts required). The 5-inch section of wood can be removed
quickly to shift the entire pad structure closer to the wall for making large
diameter pots. Lightweight channel iron is used for support framework, lagged
to the wall.
Bending from the waist to grab a bag of clay and lifting it using the lower
back is not the correct or safe way to lift. A 185-pound person puts up to
1,000 pounds of pressure on the lumbar spine while lifting a 70-pound
weight. The bowed-out back position stretches muscles and ligaments often
to the point of damage. Proper lifting involves squatting to lower yourself to
the level of the load with the lower spine bowed in and thrust forward.
While keeping the weight close to your body, raise your head to begin to
lift, then raise up with your legs. During the lift, if you have to turn, use
your feet and legs, not your trunk. Never bend from the waist to deliver
the load back to the floor. Improper lifting is a major contributor to back
strain and injury.
The Car Kiln, a Logical Alternative
Prompted in part by my injury, I built my first car kiln in 1986. The
advantages are clear. The car body comes out of the kiln into the room where
easy loading close to the chassis is possible. Two people can share in lifting
the kiln shelves. I have designed a wheeled kiln furniture cart that drives
up close to the kiln's car and allows shelves to be easily grasped from
Sharing the lifting of kiln shelves is an important change in old habits.
The kiln furniture cart is positioned conveniently nearby.
Kiln furniture cart showing pairs on left and singles on right.
One future bright spot is the advent of lighter weight refractories for kiln
shelves. The one that offers increased strength and lower weight due to a
thinner cross section is a product called nitride-bonded silicon carbide. A
typical shelf 12 x 24 inch size is only 1/2 to 5/8 inch thick. Shelves of this size
weigh approximately 15 to 18 pounds, compared to 18 to 22 pounds for the
1-inch thick older silicon carbide types. The thinner shelf saves approximately
40 percent in space use in the kiln load. Nitride-bonded kiln shelves are
more expensive than silicon carbide shelves, but the savings in weight and
volume offset this.
A comparison between normal silicon carbide shelving (nearest hand)
and newer, Cryston-type shelf.
Summary - a Check List for Longevity
- Educate yourself about proper attitudes and habits in work.
- Switch to throwing while standing up. Evidence in its favor
- Rework existing bench or table heights to allow work while
in a fully erect posture.
- If seated while at work use only high quality, properly designed
chairs with excellent lumbar support back rests. Consider the
Balans type of posture-oriented chairs in this respect.
- Give up heroic, endless sessions of any one type of work.
Throwing for eight hours a day is sheer madness. Break the
day into multiple tasks of standing, sitting, light work, heavy
work. Simple exercises done during the working day will prevent
tension, fatigue, and stress.
- Get professiona) help for devising exercise programs geared
specifically to your individual needs. When you get one, use it.
- Examine all aspects of your daily routine with fresh eyes.
Your goal is a longer working life through good health. Good luck!