Physical Therapy for Sciatica

Sciatica: Understanding the Symptoms, Misconceptions and How Physical Therapy can Help

Sciatica refers to pain along the sciatic nerve.  This most commonly occurs when a herniated disc, bone spur or spinal stenosis compresses part of the nerve.  The pain typically starts in your lower back, through your hips and down through your legs. Usually, sciatica affects only one side of the body however, in severe cases a patient can experience pain in both.

Some factors that contribute to this condition are hyper or hypo mobility of the lumbar spine, short and tight muscles in the back or legs, and poor postural habits.

Although the pain associated with sciatica can be quite severe, most cases can be resolved with over-the-counter pain relievers and physical therapy.  Through the proper regiment of stretching, strength training and body mechanics a patient can work with their therapist to isolate the pain while working to prevent future flare ups.

Identifying the Symptoms

Sciatica can identify itself through a number of symptoms.  According to, symptoms of sciatica can include but are not limited to:

  • Constant pain in only one side of the buttock or leg, but rarely in both sides
  • Pain that originates in the low back or buttock and continues along the path of the sciatic nerve—down the back of the thigh and into the lower leg and foot
  • A “pins-and-needles” sensation, numbness or weakness, or a prickling sensation down the leg in some cases
  • Weakness, numbness or difficulty moving the leg or foot
  • Hip pain
  • Burning or tingling down the leg
  • Severe or shooting pain in one leg making it difficult to stand up or walk

Symptoms my intensify when changing positions, such as when moving from sitting to standing. However, the pain can feel alleviated when the patient is lying down.

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Common Misconceptions

What works for one patient works for them all.  False

It is important to note, multiple patients may experience similar back problems, however, each case is different.  Factors such as age, body composition, patient’s occupation as well as certain underlying medical conditions can affect the severity of the pain.  This is why it is extremely important to find the right therapist.

Bed rest and avoiding physical activity is the best course of action for treating sciatica.  False

For the initial flare up, taking it easy and getting some rest is fine for the first few days.  However, avoiding activities for an extended period of time can cause many complications with sciatica leading to an increase in the pain and restrictions in mobility.

You should try and self-treat your sciatica before contacting a professional.  False

Patients should NEVER attempt to self-treat their condition without consulting a health professional.  Determining the correct diagnosis is the first step towards your road to recovery.  Not only is a professional able to diagnose the cause of your pain, they are also able to detect any serious problems that can get in the way of your recovery and adjust your treatment accordingly.

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Physical Therapy for Sciatica

Rachel Schlagel, a physical therapist with Ferrell-Whited’s Sharon Crossings location, explains the importance of diagnosing a patient’s root cause in order to put together a recovery plan.  “By identifying the root cause of your pain and treating it with a variety of hands-on interventions, a physical therapist can help you get back to your active lifestyle safely.”  Once diagnosed a therapist can put together a plan using one or more of the following techniques.

Treatment Options:

  • Cupping: An ancient form of alternative medicine, cupping therapy utilizes a series of specialized cups.  They are placed strategically on the patient’s skin to create a suction. This allows stagnant blood and toxins to be pulled from the tissue allowing your body to flush it. Once the body flushes the blood and toxins the tissue can begin to heal.
  • Dry Needling: The insertion of very thin needles into trigger points or tight muscles in the surrounding areas of a patient’s pain. Jessica Durbin, a PT with Ferrell-Whited Kent location, feels “By following the nerve pathways, dry needling creates a local and systemic response in which the body is able to recognize areas of stress and promote the healing of the affected tissues.” She continues, by stating, “With this method of treatment, I have found that about 90% of patients have a positive response with the treatment experiencing a reduction in their pain and corresponding symptoms.”
  • Manual Therapy: A specialized form of physical therapy delivered with the hands as opposed to machines or equipment. A therapist uses their hands to put pressure on muscle tissue and joints to relieve back pain.
  • Joint Mobilization: A hands-on treatment form of passive movement techniques treating musculoskeletal conditions. This technique is considered a form of manual therapy and widely used by many physical therapists.
  • Traction: A form of decompression therapy that relieves pressure on the spine used in treating many of the core symptoms of sciatica.
  • Home Exercise Programs: In many instances a physical therapist will assign a patient some “homework” as a part of their treatment.  Home exercise programs are often used in addition to the patient’s recovery plan.  This allows the patient to continue treatment from the comfort of their own home.

Why Wait?

Ferrell-Whited is one of the few private practice physical therapy clinics in Northeast Ohio. With locations in Kent, Rootstown, Medina, Montrose, and Berea, we can serve all of your physical therapy needs. Do not wait, stop into one of our offices today to discuss your road to recovery.

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