Physiotherapy for Sciatica

Overcome your sciatica with a targeted physiotherapy program

Sciatica is a term that’s frequently used when discussing back pain, but it’s not an actual medical diagnosis. Instead, sciatica describes a set of symptoms that occur when an underlying condition in the spine affects the sciatic nerve.

The sciatic nerve is the largest single nerve in the body. It runs from each side of the lower spine through the buttocks, into the thigh, and down to the foot. It plays an important part in communicating messages from the spinal cord to the legs and feet, and when it’s damaged or compressed from too much pressure, the result is called sciatica.

A number of conditions in the lower back can cause sciatica, including a herniated disc, degenerative disc disease, spondylolisthesis, bone spurs, and spinal stenosis. Over time, the presence of any of these conditions may pinch—or impinge—the sciatic nerve and prevent it from doing its job. This impingement will also lead to symptoms that can span the length of the nerve, such as the following:

  • Pain that radiates from the lower back down the leg and possibly into the foot
  • A constant pain on only one side of the buttock or leg pain that gets worse with sitting
  • A burning, stinging, or searing pain in the leg
  • Weakness, numbness, or difficulty moving the leg, foot, or toes
  • A sharp pain that makes it difficult to stand or walk

Sciatica most commonly occurs between ages 40-50, which is often due to age-related changes that increase the likelihood of the nerve becoming pinched. Other factors that may increase the chances of developing sciatica are obesity—which places increased pressure on the spine—diabetes, a sedentary lifestyle (too much time sitting), and too much twisting of the back.

Addressing the root cause of sciatica with physiotherapy

About 10-40% of the population is affected by sciatica, but most patients will experience significant improvements if they complete a course of physiotherapy. Since sciatica is caused by some other condition, a physiotherapist will first focus on identifying the issue that’s responsible with a thorough evaluation. From there, they will create a personalized treatment program to address whatever condition is present with the goal of alleviating sciatica symptoms and increasing function. Common physiotherapy interventions used for sciatica include:

  • Manual therapy: hands-on techniques like deep tissue massage may be used to target muscles and other structures in the lower back, hips, and buttocks that may be pinching the sciatic nerve and/or nerves that branch off from it
  • Strengthening exercises: increasing the strength of the back, abdominal, and core muscles will directly address sciatica since these muscles support the lower spine
  • Aerobic exercise: low-impact exercises like walking, swimming, biking, or yoga may be recommended to increase your overall activity levels; exercising in water is particularly helpful for sciatica since it’s soothing and puts less strain on the spine
  • Stretching exercises: tightness in the lower back, buttocks, hamstrings, and calves can make sciatica symptom worse, so these exercises will target any stiff muscles to improve their range of motion
  • Education: your therapist will offer tips and education on how to reduce complications from sciatica, such as using proper posture at all times, avoiding too much time sitting, getting enough sleep, and avoiding smoking

Sticking with a physiotherapy program will lead to short-term benefits that can be sustained in the long term if you adopt healthy habits and remain active. So, if you’re affected by sciatica and would like to take control of it, we can help. Contact us today for more information or to schedule an appointment with one of our physiotherapists.