What is Sciatica and can it be treated with Physical Therapy?

What is Sciatica and can it be treated with Physical Therapy?

June 4, 2024

Sciatica is sometimes an overused, “catch-all” term that people use when talking about low back pain and/or pain in a lower extremity. Sciatica, by definition, is pain along the path of the sciatic nerve, which travels from the buttock down into the back of the leg. Sciatic pain usually occurs as a result of something putting extra pressure on a nerve root in the low back, where the sciatic nerve originates. Herniated discs or bone spurs are common culprits for putting increased pressure on low back nerve roots. This increased pressure can cause inflammation, pain, and sometimes numbness down the back of the affected leg. Sciatica can also occur if the sciatic nerve is limited in mobility or entrapped at another site along its course. Sciatica usually responds very well to conservative treatment, though there are severe instances where surgery might be indicated. 

Symptoms of sciatica

Pain from sciatica can occur anywhere along the pathway of the nerve. It commonly starts in the low back and buttock and travels down the back of the thigh and calf, but sometimes people feel the most symptoms in the thigh and calf only. Pain from sciatica can range from a mild ache to a sharp, burning pain. Some people describe their sciatica pain as a jolt or electric shock. Sciatic pain usually only affects one side of the body. In addition to pain, some people also report numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness in the leg or foot. 

Risk factors for sciatica

  • Age – people 20-50 more commonly have herniated discs; bone spurs occur more commonly in the aging/elderly population

  • Obesity- leads to increased stress on the spine

  • Occupation – jobs that require carrying heavy loads, sitting for prolonged periods, or a lot of twisting through the low back can lead to sciatica

  • Prolonged sitting – can lead to increased likelihood of herniated disc compared to people that are more active

  • Diabetes- increases the risk of nerve damage

Sciatica prevention

Ways to minimize the risk of sciatica include:

  • Regular exercise – Core muscle strengthening (abdominal and low back muscles) is importance in preventing sciatica symptoms

  • Maintaining good posture when sitting- Ensure your chair has good lower back support, armrests and a swivel base. You can place a pillow or rolled towel in the small of the back for better support. Keep knees and hips level.

  • Use your body correctly- ensure you are using your legs to do the work when lifting something heavy. Hold heavy loads close to your body when carrying. Avoid lifting and twisting at the same time to minimize stress on the low back. 

  • Take standing/walking breaks – if you have to sit a lot for work, build in movement breaks to take some strain off of your lower back. 

The good news is, physical therapy has been shown to be very effective for the treatment of sciatica symptoms. You don’t have to live with sciatic pain. Call us today to see if physical therapy is a good fit for you!