The right and left sciatic nerves join from the lower back nerve roots down to each of your legs. Often irritation is only on the right or left, leading to a classic sign of sciatica: having a shooting pain on one leg only. While irritation of one of your sciatic nerves can literally be a “pain in the butt,” it doesn’t always require medical attention. Yet sometimes physical therapy is your best bet to banish sciatica symptoms. So how can you tell when to go it alone, and when to call a physical therapist?
1. If Home Treatments Aren’t Working
There are plenty of things you can do at home to ease a mild sciatica flare-up. Alternating with cold and heat is a classic treatment for sciatica symptoms. Use an ice pack, followed by a heating pad, for about 15 minutes per application. Sleeping with a pillow between your knees can also help. If you can’t get comfortable during the day or at night, try a reclining chair to redirect the pressure from your lower back. Going for walks often helps ease sciatica pain, because “babying” your condition can actually make it worse.
Yet while these methods may help with mild sciatica, there are times when a physical therapy session is a far better strategy. One sign that you should consult a physical therapist is if your home treatments are having little or no effect in reducing the pain and restricted motion. Another is if the symptoms persist for at least a week. Of course, the worsening of pain is the most important sign that physical therapy is needed.
2. When Sciatica Symptoms Become Severe
If your sciatic nerve becomes seriously irritated, the resulting symptoms can go from uncomfortable to quite painful – and even embarrassing. You may become weak and numb on one side. Sometimes, even getting your leg or foot to move becomes impossible. If the pain hits you suddenly, and with great intensity, it’s probably time to visit a physical therapist to begin easing the pain.
Another tell-tale sign? The sciatic nerve can become compressed in the area that controls bladder and/or bowel function. If you lose control of either or both of these functions, you will obviously want to get professional help. Visit a doctor to rule out other problems. He or she may run tests, as well as refer you to a physical therapist.
3. If the Pain Follows an Injury
Mild sciatica can build up over time, and it may even go away on its own. But when you have an onset of classic sciatica symptoms following a car accident, serious fall or sports injury, contact a doctor and a physical therapist. The symptoms are more likely to be severe because of the greater impact on the area surrounding the sciatic nerve. It’s important to determine the severity of nerve irritation or damage. Your medical team needs to evaluate the need for surgery, steroid injections or prescription drugs.
Of course, even if your injury requires more aggressive treatment, physical therapy is often recommended as part of the recovery plan. Your physical therapist can help you with surgery rehab. He or she can also focus on extending the benefits of your injections and sciatica medication.
For many people with persistent or severe sciatica, physical therapy can be a lifeline. You’ll be taught targeted moves that strengthen your lower back. Strong muscles support the area around your sciatic nerve and can prevent future injuries. You’ll also work on improving your posture to keep sciatica symptoms at bay. Proper lifting mechanics can help limit the stress to the low back and sciatic nerve. Increasing range of motion is also part of physical therapy for sciatica.