If you’ve experienced sciatica pain, then you know how debilitating it can be.
Experts estimate that roughly 40 percent of all people experience sciatica. (1)
Fortunately, a physical therapist can help you relieve sciatica pain through simple techniques like stretching and strengthening exercises.
Most people respond well to these techniques and are pain-free within a matter of weeks.
By the end of this article, you’ll have a clear understanding of the benefits of physical therapy and sciatica pain.
Let’s dive in!
What Is Sciatica?
Sciatica pain is caused by compression and irritation of the sciatic nerve in the lower spine.
It can range from a dull ache to extreme pain and is often confused with general lower back pain.
However, sciatica pain isn’t just limited to the back.
The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in the body.
It travels down the lower back, buttocks, and legs just below the knee.
As a result, it controls several leg muscles and creates a sensation in the foot and lower leg.
Unfortunately, this means that sciatica can lead to dysfunction and discomfort in these areas.
Sciatica pain can radiate down the lower back, past your hips, and into your legs.
Symptoms of Sciatica
Oftentimes, sciatica pain is triggered by sitting for long periods of time.
Common sciatica symptoms include tingling, numbness, and muscle weakness that affects the thigh, calf, and foot.
Fortunately, most sciatica pain can be relieved with physical therapy, chiropractic care, and massage therapy, but more on that later…
For now, let’s take a look at what causes sciatica.
Causes of Sciatica
There are several risk factors in both athletes and sedentary people.
People who are most at risk for sciatica include:
Out of all of these groups, sedentary people are the most at risk.
Sitting at a desk all day tightens the hips and compresses the lower spine where the sciatic nerve is most exposed.
The bottom line is, the more you sit, the more likely you are to develop sciatica.
People with obesity, diabetes, and herniated discs are also more likely to have sciatica.
In fact, according to the British Medical Journal, roughly 90 percent of all sciatica cases are caused by a herniated disc! (2)
This is because the slipped disc puts direct pressure on the nerve.
Slipped discs can be caused by a number of factors, including sitting for long periods of time.
Endurance athletes are also at risk, especially runners and cyclists.
This is because repetitive motions wear on the hips and spine.
Endurance athletes also tend to have stiff muscles, which puts further pressure on the sciatic nerve.
Construction workers and other manual laborers in the same boat.
Age, on the other hand, is a major factor as well.
Between the ages of 30 and 60, many people start to experience spinal degeneration.
Ultimately, this can lead to herniated discs, bone spurs, and issues with the hip joint.
Common Sciatica Treatments
When it comes to treating sciatica pain, surgery is always the last step to take.
That’s because there are so many successful non-invasive treatments out there.
In fact, about 50 percent of sciatica cases improve in a month and a half with nonsurgical treatments. (3)
Common treatments for sciatica include:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Hot & cold therapy
Now let’s take a closer look at physical therapy and sciatica pain:
Physical Therapy for Back Health and Sciatica Pain
Out of all the sciatica treatments, physical therapy is typically the most effective.
Ultimately, physical therapy can relieve flare-ups and provide long-term comfort.
It combines targeted exercise with light stretching and other treatments to improve mobility and relieve pressure on the nerve.
Imbalances in the bones, joints, ligaments, and muscles can all affect the sciatic nerve.
Luckily, physical therapy can help correct these imbalances.
Here are some of the top health benefits of physical therapy and sciatica:
Health Benefits of Physical Therapy and Sciatica
1. Posture and Spinal Stability
Ultimately, physical therapy makes it easier to have proper body mechanics.
The erector spinae is a group of muscles that form two columns along either side of the spine.
Physical therapy improves posture by strengthening these muscles as well as supporting the hip flexors, obliques, and abdominals.
2. Reduce Back Pain
When your back hurts, the muscles around it tend to tense up.
Unfortunately, this increases the risk of muscle strains and sciatica.
However, physical therapy can ease general back pain and loosen stiff muscles.
3. Improve Balance
Balance is key to reducing back pain and treating sciatica.
When the spine is aligned and your hips are mobile, your lower back is able to stay relaxed while you walk, lift, and reach for objects.
4. Build Muscle
Physical therapy builds lean muscle in the most important areas of the body for mobility and comfort, including the:
Next, we’ll cover some of the best exercises to improve functional strength and mobility.
Best Exercises for Sciatica
When it comes to strengthening the back and preventing sciatica, it’s important to focus on core strength and balance.
Ultimately, a tight core and great hip mobility lead to better posture.
Some of the best exercises for sciatica prevention include:
Forearm Plank: Drop down into a plank position, resting your weight on your forearms. Squeeze your abs and your glutes while driving your forearms into the floor. At the same time, spread your shoulder blades apart as far out as you can. Hold for one minute.
Bird Dog: From the top of a push-up position, extend your left arm out in front of you. At the same time, keep your right leg straight as you lift it off the floor. Keep your core tight and return to a plank position. Repeat on the opposite side. Continue alternating back and forth for a minute.
Arch Hold: Lay on your stomach with your arms stretched straight out in front of you. Lift your legs and your chest into a backbend while keeping your legs straight. Hold for 30 seconds.
Swimmer Kicks: From an Arch Hold position, make little flutter kicks with your arms and legs parallel to the ground. Repeat for 30 seconds.
Best Stretches for Sciatica
A research team at the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle recently performed a study on the benefits of stretching and yoga for sciatica.
Out of 228 participants, the ones who did intense stretching or yoga improved much faster than the control group. (4)
Here are some of the best stretches for sciatica:
Cat and Cow: Start on your hands on knees and press your palms into the floor while rounding your back. At the same time, spread your shoulder blades apart and draw your chin into your chest. This brings you into Cat Pose. Next, squeeze your shoulder blades together as you lift your chin into the air. This reverses the arch position and brings you into Cow Pose. Repeat 15 times.
Seated Forward Fold: Sit tall with your legs straight out in front of you. Next, reach your arms straight forward, folding your body at the waist. Reach as far as you can over your toes while bringing your chest towards the floor.
Head-to-Knee Forward Fold: Sit upright on the floor with both legs straight out in front of you. Next, fold your right leg in towards you, positioning your right foot against your left inner thigh. Next, fold forward at the waist and reach for the outside of your left calf or ankle (however far you can reach). You should feel a stretch in your right lower back and left hamstrings. Repeat with the other side.
Seated Crossed-Legged Forward Fold: Sit in a comfortable cross-legged position. Sit up tall and raise your arms straight above your head. Next, fold forward at the waist, bringing your arms and chest towards the floor. Alternate cross-legged positions and repeat.
Over time, tight muscles can shift joint alignment and cause painful imbalances to develop, including sciatica.
This is why stretching is often one of the best treatment options.
Flexibility and mobility keep the body aligned and relieve unnecessary stress on the joints.
However, sometimes physical therapy exercises aren’t enough…
Massage Therapy for Sciatica
Massage therapy can be an effective way to loosen the muscles in the lower back, hips, and hamstrings.
As a result, it can relieve lower back pain and help treat sciatica.
In fact, a recent study found that “Massage therapy helps to increase range of motion, decrease pain, and assist in healing a client with low back pain and sciatica symptoms.” (5)
Soft tissue massage may also help reduce pain by releasing hormones called endorphins.
Endorphins are linked to feelings of pleasure and well-being.
Chiropractic Care for Sciatica
Chiropractic adjustments can help relieve direct pressure on the spine.
As a result, it can be an effective treatment for sciatica.
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Spine Society found that spinal manipulations can be an effective way to treat both short-term and long-term lower back pain. (6)
At the same time, chiropractic care can improve posture and body mechanics and prevent further injury.
If you have any more questions about how to treat sciatica with physical therapy, massage, or chiropractic care, feel free to contact us at Complete Care Health Centers.
We’re happy to answer any questions you may have.