If you’ve ever spent too much time in the garden weeding or hours bending over to lift things, you may have come away with pain in your lower back. Even people who are bedridden for long periods of time can experience low back pain. This condition is usually due to muscle strain or fatigue and will typically dissipate with rest, ibuprofen, heat, or ice.
But if you have ever had severe pain on one side that radiated from your lumbar region (lower back) to your buttock and down the back of your leg, you may have been suffering from sciatica.
What Is Sciatica?
Sciatica generally occurs as the result of a herniated disk, bone spur, or narrowing of the spine (spinal stenosis), which compresses part of the sciatic nerve. The pain follows the nerve pathway, which extends from your lower back to your hips and buttocks and then down your leg. The pain can be especially intense and is much more severe than simple muscle pain.
The feeling of sciatica is often described as a burning sensation and can be exacerbated by long periods spent sitting. Even coughing can make the pain worse.
Additionally, some people report numbness, tingling, or even muscle weakness as a result of sciatica.
What Conditions Cause Sciatica?
There are multiple causes for sciatica in addition to a herniated disk, bone spur, or spinal stenosis, including:
- Spondylolisthesis. This occurs when vertebrae shift out of position and dislocate. As the vertebrae slip, they put pressure on the sciatic nerve.
- Paget’s Disease. This rare disorder is the result of rapid, irregular bone growth in the lower back. As the bones increase in size, they put pressure on the sciatic nerve.
- Piriformis Syndrome. A rare disorder typically caused by trauma, long sedentary periods or genetic defects. It is a neuromuscular condition in which the buttock muscle is aggravated and puts pressure on the sciatic nerve.
- Spinal tumors. If a tumor forms inside the spinal cord or between the cord and vertebrae, its growth can compress the sciatic nerve.
- Spinal trauma. Trauma to the spine following an accident or fall can cause fragments of vertebrae to break off into the spinal canal, thus putting pressure on the sciatic nerve.
- Lifestyle. Obesity, lack of exercise, or a sedentary lifestyle can also lead to bouts of sciatica.
Treating Sciatic Nerve Pain With Physical Therapy
While the pain from sciatica can be severe, most cases can be treated with physical therapy (PT) rather than surgery.
PT treatments for relief of sciatica consist of:
- Manual therapy techniques that strengthen the spinal column, tendons, and muscles.
- Stretching both the nerves and muscles in the region.
- Low-impact aerobic exercises such as walking, swimming, or pool therapy.
Because physical therapy increases blood flow to the area, it reduces inflammation and the pain associated with sciatica.
At the conclusion of PT, a physical therapist will help a patient learn how to prevent future injuries.