3 ways a physical therapist can provide relief for your sciatic nerve pain

can a young person get sciatica

Did you know that back pain and sciatic pain are not always the same condition? While they may present with similar symptoms, only about 5% to 10% of people with lower back pain are actually experiencing sciatic nerve pain. 

Sciatica is pain that travels along the sciatic nerve, which extends from the lower back down to the legs. In severe cases, sciatica may make it difficult or even impossible to walk or accomplish daily tasks due to nerve pain. If you’re experiencing pain that starts in your lower back and moves to your hip or down your leg, you may be dealing with sciatic nerve pain. 

While sciatica is a painful condition and can be debilitating, there are ways to find relief. Let’s take a look at how physical therapy can help you decrease your sciatica and what may be the root cause of that nerve pain.

Physical therapy for sciatic nerve pain

Physical therapy is a gentle, noninvasive way to treat sciatic nerve pain. The goal with physical therapy for sciatica is to relieve pressure on the affected nerve, which can decrease pain and help you regain mobility. Decreasing pressure on the nerve can also decrease inflammation along the nerve itself. 

But there are many kinds of physical therapy depending on where your pain is located and what your limitations are. How do you know where to begin? Here are a few physical therapy techniques that may relieve some of your sciatic nerve pain:

  • Manual therapyManual therapy is a hands-on form of physical therapy treatment. During manual therapy, your physical therapist will use their hands to move and stretch the affected areas of your body with the goal of releasing tension and decreasing pain. For sciatic nerve pain, your physical therapist may focus on the lower back, buttocks and thigh area to try to relieve tension around the sciatic nerve. There are several types of manual therapy, including:
  • Joint mobilization.
  • Strain-counterstrain.
  • Soft tissue mobilization.
  • High velocity, low amplitude thrusting.
  • Muscle energy techniques.

These varying techniques use different forms of gentle, repetitive motion to relax muscles, tendons and joints with the goal of easing pain and helping you move your body more effectively.

  • Electrical stimulationElectrical stimulation devices can be used to temporarily offer pain relief so you can do your physical therapy more effectively. Self-adhesive electrodes are placed around the target treatment area on the body to deliver an electrical signal. For sciatic pain, they may be placed around the lower back and the thigh area. These electrodes are connected via wire leads to the unit, through which electricity can pass. The goal of this treatment is to disrupt pain signals along the sciatic nerve, which will allow you to move more freely and hopefully relax the tissue that’s compressing the affected area.
  • Therapeutic exercise — Your physical therapist may recommend specific therapeutic exercises to help you strengthen your muscles, increase your range of motion, and improve your balance and stability. These exercises will be tailored to your abilities and limitations to help you build up your muscles. The goal with these exercises is to increase your mobility and prevent future injuries or issues. Your physical therapist may assist you with some of these exercises at first, while others you may be able to do independently right away.

These are just a few of the treatment options your physical therapist may recommend to address your sciatic nerve pain. Together, you and your physical therapist can develop a unique physical therapy treatment plan to help you address your pain and get back on track to a more active way of life.

Symptoms of sciatic nerve pain

Now that we know how physical therapy can help treat sciatic nerve pain, let’s take a closer look at what that pain is and how it’s different from general lower back pain. While back pain often stays in the range of the upper or lower back, sciatic nerve pain can radiate down through the sciatic nerve. This means that not only may you feel pain in your lower back, but that pain can continue through your thigh and down to your calf, foot and even toes. It’s also characterized by certain symptoms, such as:

  • Low back pain that radiates down the leg.
  • Leg pain with burning and tingling.
  • Numbness in the leg or feet.
  • Continual pain on one side of the buttock.
  • Sharp pain.
  • Trouble sitting and getting up.

These symptoms can make it more difficult for you to do everyday activities such as lifting heavy objects, moving without pain and even walking short distances. While mild sciatica may resolve on its own, if you’re experiencing these symptoms for an extended period of time, or if they’re getting worse, you may need to seek treatment. 

Because sciatic pain is centered around a nerve, you are more likely to experience pain that registers as burning, tingling and numbing. But while you may experience sciatic pain, sciatica is not a formal diagnosis. To understand why and how you’re experiencing this pain, you have to know the root cause.

Causes of sciatic nerve pain

There are many different causes of sciatic nerve pain, and depending on your diagnosis, you may need different treatments. So, let’s take a look at some common causes of sciatic nerve pain and how they may affect you.

  • Degenerative disc disease — Disc degeneration is a natural process that often occurs as people age. However, injuries, wear and tear, and even genetic factors can speed up disc degeneration in younger people as well. As the discs in the spine or lower back degenerate, they can irritate the sciatic nerve root. Bone spurs can also develop alongside disc degeneration and cause sciatica as well. This disease is diagnosed when a weakened disc is exposed, and symptoms include pain while sitting, bending, lifting or twisting.
  • Lumbar spinal stenosis — Lumbar spinal stenosis is caused by a gradual narrowing of the spinal canal. It’s also common in the aging process and usually affects people over the age of 50. This condition can be caused by a bulging disc, enlarged facet joints, arthritis or an overgrowth of soft tissue. Symptoms of lumbar spinal stenosis can include back pain and sciatic pain.
  • Lumbar herniated disc — A lumbar herniated disc occurs when the soft gel material of a spinal disc leaks out and passes through the tougher, rubbery exterior known as the annulus. This can irritate the sciatic nerve and is also known as bulging disc, slipped disc, ruptured disc or protruding disc. Sciatica is a common symptom of a herniated disc, which causes symptoms including pain in your lower back, buttocks, thigh and calf.
  • Degenerative spondylolisthesis — Degeneration can cause a vertebra in the spine to slip over the vertebra underneath. This is called degenerative spondylolisthesis and is oftentimes due to a small stress fracture in the vertebrae. Degenerative spondylolisthesis can cause the sciatic nerve to get pinched, which results in sciatica. Sciatic pain can range from mild to severe, and symptoms include lower back pain with radiating pain in the legs and pain while walking.

These are just a few of the possible causes of sciatic pain. Your doctor or physical therapist can help you determine the root cause of your pain, which will help them know how to treat it. But no matter what is causing your sciatic nerve pain, our licensed physical therapists at Whatcom Physical Therapy are here to help. 

Our team of experts is well versed in physical therapy methods that specifically address sciatic pain and other symptoms. Your Whatcom physical therapist will develop a unique treatment plan that specifically targets your sciatica so you can get back to living your life.

You don’t have to live with constant sciatic nerve pain. If you’re ready to take the first step toward reducing your sciatica, call us or request an appointment today to get started.