If you’ve been dealing with sharp back pain for quite some time, it could be due to a condition called “sciatica.” Each of your sciatic nerves runs from either side of your lower back down to each of your legs. That’s why a classic sign of sciatica is having a shooting pain on one side only.
While compression of one of your sciatic nerves can literally be a “pain in the butt,” it doesn’t always require medical attention. However, sometimes physical therapy is your best bet to banish sciatica symptoms once and for all.
So, how can you tell when your pain is something temporary, how can you know when to call a physical therapist? These guidelines below will explain what exactly sciatica is and how physical therapy can help you find relief.
What is sciatica?
Move Forward Physical Therapy gives the following explanation for sciatica:
“Lumbar radiculopathy (also known as sciatica or radiculitis) is a condition that occurs when a nerve in your low back is injured, pinched, or compressed, causing pain or other symptoms that can extend from the low back to the hip, leg, or foot. Lumbar radiculopathy can be caused by sudden trauma or by long-term stress affecting structures in the back. It most often affects people aged 30 to 50 years. Risk factors for lumbar radiculopathy include repeated lifting, participating in weight-bearing sports, obesity, smoking, sedentary lifestyles, and poor posture. The majority of lumbar radiculopathy and sciatica cases recover without surgery and respond well to physical therapy.”
Physical therapy can help patients dealing with this kind of pain. Physical therapists are trained movement specialists who know how to assess your condition properly and figure out if you have any underlying conditions, or if your pain is related to sciatica.
Physical therapists design individualized treatment programs to help people with sciatica to reduce their pain, move normally, and get back to their lives.
When to see a physical therapist
We aren’t all doctors, so it can be a task at times to know whether or not it’s appropriate to look to a physical therapist for help with a pain condition. However, more times than not, you’ll find that therapy is key for finding optimum pain relief. Here are 3 indicators that you should see a physical therapist for your back pain or sciatica pain.
1. You should see a physical therapist when the pain is a response to an injury
Although mild sciatica can build up over time, and it may even go away on its own, don’t always count on this happening. When you have an onset of classic sciatica symptoms following a car accident, serious fall, or sports injury, contact your doctor or a physical therapist.
Chances are, your symptoms are more likely to be severe because of the greater impact on the area surrounding the sciatic nerve. Your medical team can determine the severity of nerve damage as well as evaluate the need for surgery, steroid injections, or prescription drugs.
For many people with persistent or severe sciatica, physical therapy can be a lifeline. You’ll be taught targeted moves that strengthen your lower back. Strong muscles support the area around your sciatic nerve and can prevent future injuries. You’ll also work on improving your posture to keep sciatica symptoms at bay. Increasing range of motion is also part of physical therapy for sciatica.
Of course, even if your injury requires more aggressive treatment, physical therapy is often recommended as part of the recovery plan. Your physical therapist can help you with surgery, rehab, and they can also focus on extending the benefits of your injections and sciatica medication.
2. You should see a physical therapist when your symptoms begin to become severe
If your sciatic nerve becomes seriously compressed, the resulting symptoms can go from uncomfortable to quite painful. In some cases, they can even become embarrassing.
Sometimes, getting your leg or foot to move becomes impossible. You may become weak and numb on one side. If the pain hits you suddenly, and with great intensity, it’s probably time to visit a physical therapist to begin easing the pain.
Another telltale sign? The sciatic nerve can become compressed in the area that controls the bladder and/or bowel function. This can cause incontinence issues.
If you lose control of either or both of these functions, you’ll obviously want to get professional help. Visit a doctor to rule out other problems. They will likely run tests, as well as refer you to a physical therapist.
3. You should see a physical therapist when your home remedies fail to work
We all love a good DIY health remedy, right? There are plenty of things you can do at home to ease a mild sciatica flare-up. Alternating with cold and heat is a classic treatment for sciatica symptoms. You can use an ice pack, followed by a heating pad, for about 15 minutes per application. Sleeping with a pillow between your knees can also help. If you can’t get comfortable during the day or at night, try a reclining chair to redirect the pressure from your lower back.
Going for walks often helps ease sciatica pain, because “babying” your condition can actually make it worse. Yet while these methods may help with mild sciatica, there are times when a physical therapy session is a far better strategy.
One sign that you should consult a physical therapist is if your home treatments are having little or no effect in reducing the pain and restricted motion, or if your pain lasts longer than a week.
Ready to get started?
Of course, the worsening of pain is the most important sign that physical therapy is needed. Contact StepUp PT today to speak with an experienced physical therapist about how to manage – and even banish – painful sciatica flare-ups!