Relieving the Symptoms of Sciatica
By Richard DiGiacomo Jr., PT, DPT, Cert. MDT
West Philadelphia (July 21, 2014): The term sciatica is often used to describe nerve pain, or numbness and tingling, down one or both legs. Sciatica is a fairly common issue, affecting approximately 40 percent of the population at some point in their lives.
What some may not realize is that while most of the discomfort is felt in the legs, sciatica is caused by problems in the lower spine. Any cause of irritation or inflammation of the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back, through the buttocks and down the leg, can result in sciatica. It is most commonly a result of a lumbar disc herniation directly pressing on the nerve.
In many sciatica cases, the specific cause is never identified. About half of affected individuals recover from an episode within a month. Some cases can linger a few weeks longer and may require aggressive treatment. In other cases, the pain may return or potentially become chronic. The symptoms of a pulled or strained hamstring muscle may mimic those of sciatica, a pain that radiates from the sciatic nerve and often indicates bulging or herniated discs, spinal stenosis, or “pinched nerve.”
Sciatic pain can vary from infrequent and irritating to constant and incapacitating. The condition usually heals itself, given sufficient time and rest. If you feel that the pain is affecting your lifestyle, consult your primary care physician. Your doctor may refer you for physical therapy that helps find exercise movements that decrease sciatic pain by reducing pressure on the nerve and strengthening the muscles of your back, abdomen, and legs.
One of the most effective forms of physical therapy is a movement and posture-based approach called Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy, or “McKenzie.” Through specific active motions or postures of the spine, a physical therapist can determine the source of your pain. McKenzie therapy features active movement or positions of the spine and predominantly therapist-guided, hands-off treatment, which helps to decrease and eventually relieve leg and back pain caused by sciatica. Each person’s exercise program is unique, and tailored to what works for them.
The goal of physical therapy is to decrease pain and increase mobility. Your therapist can guide your exercise and wellness regimen after a successful physical therapy program. Exercise is key to preventing or reducing future bouts of sciatica. Examples of exercises are aquatic exercises, yoga and Pilates. Massage therapy may also be helpful.
Patients with back pain and sciatica often delay their treatment, however, and symptoms can get worse over time.
The goal of therapy is for the patient to be independently self-treating their back or leg pain through the specific spinal movements and practicing good posture to decrease their pain, and prevent future flare ups.
If you think you have “sciatica” (pain in one or both legs, with or without the presence of low back pain), seek out a referral to physical therapy from your primary care physician.
To find a physician or a physical therapy program, visit www.mercyhealth.org/find-a-doctor.