What is it Sciatica?
Sciatica is generally caused by the compression of lumbar nerves L4 or L5 or sacral nerves S1, S2, or S3, or by compression of the sciatic nerve itself. When sciatica is caused by compression of a dorsal nerve root (radix) it is considered a lumbar radiculopathy (or radiculitis when accompanied with an inflammatory response). This can occur as a result of a spinal disk bulge or spinal disc herniation (a herniated intervertebral disc), or from roughening, enlarging, or misalignment (spondylolisthesis) of the vertebrae, or as a result of degenerated discs that can reduce the diameter of the lateral foramen through which nerve roots exit the spine. The intervertebral discs consist of an annulus fibrosus, which forms a ring surrounding the inner nucleus pulposus. When there is a tear in the annulus fibrosus, the nucleus pulposus (pulp) may extrude through the tear and press against spinal nerves within the spinal cord, cauda equina, or exiting nerve roots, causing inflammation, numbness or excruciating pain. Sciatica due to compression of a nerve root is one of the most common forms of radiculopathy.
Pseudosciatica or non-discogenic sciatica, which causes symptoms similar to spinal nerve root compression, is most often referred pain from damage to facet joints in the lower back and is felt as pain in the lower back and posterior upper legs. Pseudosciatic pain can also be caused by compression of peripheral sections of the nerve, usually from soft tissue tension in the piriformis or related muscles.
How Can Physical Therapy Help?
Our physical therapist’s overall purpose is to help you continue to participate in your daily activities and life roles. The therapist will design a treatment program based on both the findings of the evaluation and your personal goals. Your treatment program most likely will include a combination of exercises.
Our therapist will design:
- Exercises that involve specific movements to relieve nerve pressure and decrease pain and other symptoms, especially during the early stages of treatment
- Stretching and flexibility exercises to improve mobility in the joints and the muscles of your spine, arms, and legs—improving motion in a joint can be key to pain relief
- Strengthening exercises—strong trunk muscles provide support for your spinal joints, and strong arm and leg muscles help take some of the workload off those joints
- Aerobic exercise, which has been proven to be helpful in relieving pain, promoting a healthy body weight, and improving overall strength and mobility.
This might sound like a lot of exercise, but don’t worry: research shows that the more exercise you can handle, the quicker you’ll get rid of your pain and other symptoms.
Our physical therapist also might decide to use a combination of other treatments:
- Manual therapy to improve the mobility of stiff joints and tight muscles that may be contributing to your symptoms
- Posture and movement education to show you how to make small changes in how you sit, stand, bend, and lift—even in how you sleep—to help relieve your pain and help you manage your condition on your own
- Special pain treatments—such as ice, traction, and electrical stimulation—to reduce pain that is severe and not relieved by exercise or manual therapy
Once your pain is gone, it will be important for you to continue your new posture and movement habits to keep your back healthy.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Our physical therapists will conduct a thorough evaluation that includes a review of your medical history and will use screening tools to determine the likelihood of sciatica. For example, the therapist will:
- Ask you very specific questions about the location and behavior of your pain, weakness, and other symptoms
- Ask you to fill out a body diagram to indicate specific areas of pain, numbness, and tingling
- Perform tests of muscle strength and sensation to determine the severity of the pressure on your nerves
- Examine your posture and observe how you walk and perform other activities
- Measure the range of motion of your spine and legs
- Perform special tests, such as the straight leg raise test or the crossover straight leg raise test, that help diagnose a herniated disk
- Use manual therapy to evaluate the mobility of the joints and muscles in your spine
- Test the strength of important muscle groups
If you have muscle weakness and loss of sensation or very severe pain, special diagnostic tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), electromyography, or nerve conduction studies may be needed. Physical therapists work closely with physicians and other health care providers to make certain that you receive an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
Research shows that in all but the most extreme cases (usually involving muscle weakness or high levels of pain), conservative care, such as physical therapy, has better results than surgery.
If your physical therapist’s evaluation indicates that there are no signs of nerve compression and you don’t have any signs of muscle weakness or numbness, treatment can begin right away. If the evaluation indicates that the herniated disk might be compressing the nerves, your therapist will consult with a physician specialist.
Sciatica is a set of symptoms including pain that may be caused by general compression or irritation of one of five spinal nerve roots that give rise to each sciatic nerve, or by compression or irritation of the left or right or both sciatic nerves. The pain is felt in the lower back, buttock, or various parts of the leg and foot. In addition to pain, which is sometimes severe, there may be numbness, muscular weakness, pins and needles or tingling and difficulty in moving or controlling the leg. Typically, the symptoms are only felt on one side of the body. Pain can be severe in prolonged exposure to cold weather.
Although sciatica is a relatively common form of low back pain and leg pain, the true meaning of the term is often misunderstood. Sciatica is a set of symptoms rather than a diagnosis for what is irritating the root of the nerve, causing the pain. This point is important, because treatment for sciatica or sciatic symptoms often differs, depending upon the underlying cause of the symptoms and pain levels.