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Can physiotherapy help sciatica?

Have you ever heard of sciatica?  Are you or a family member struggling with sciatica nerve pain and perhaps wondering what causes sciatica to flare up? Given sciatica affects 40 percent of adults chances are you or someone you know may experience it at some point in your lifetime. Once you know what to look for and when to seek sciatica treatment, the condition is manageable – as physiotherapists we can absolutely guide your sciatica treatment. We’re here to help you identify the symptoms of sciatica, support you with sciatica pain relief and most importantly, work with you to prevent future flare ups.  

Sciatica 101

The condition is named for the sciatic nerve which is the largest nerve in your body. The sciatic nerve is rooted in your spinal cord with fronds that travel up through the discs of your spine, down into your bottom and through the back of your legs. 

Sciatica occurs when this sprawling sciatic nerve experiences pain; for example, when there is pressure put on the sciatic nerve, it is irritated or it becomes inflamed. This can sometimes be caused by a herniated disc, injury, or spinal stenosis.

Pain in the sciatic nerve can be caused and exacerbated by certain lifestyle factors and we’ll get into some of those after we’ve identified common sciatica symptoms. 

Signs of sciatica 

Sciatica symptoms present as pain in your lower back, legs and sometimes in your bottom. The severity of symptoms may vary a lot but the good news is that with the right sciatica treatment symptoms usually improve overtime – more on that in a moment. 

Some sciatica symptoms are more severe and serious than others and it’s important to see a doctor immediately if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Sudden, severe pain in the legs or lower back 
  • Numbness or muscle weakness in one or both legs
  • Ongoing pain after a serious incident, for example a car accident 
  • Trouble controlling when you need to go to the toilet (bladder and bowel weakness)

Although less dangerous, other symptoms of sciatica are often extremely uncomfortable and can impact your day-to-day life. 

Other symptoms of sciatica include

  • Aching pain in the bottom, hamstring and calf muscles 
  • Pain in the ankles and feet 
  • Pins and needles in the lower half of the body 
  • Pain when lifting things (where there wasn’t pain before)
  • Noticeably weaker muscles in the legs and feet

Sciatica triggers, and how to avoid them 

Given that sciatica symptoms are both uncomfortable and debilitating, let’s look at what causes sciatica so we can work towards preventing flare ups. Then, we’ll identify some common treatments of sciatica and how physiotherapy can help with sciatica pain relief. 

Here are some common activities that will cause a sciatica flare up: 

  • Prolonged sitting: perhaps you’ve heard that sitting is the new smoking, and most offices now offer a standing desk option. If you work at a computer, combining regular breaks and a lunchtime walk with utilising a standing desk for part of your day you will go a long way in minimising your risk of experiencing pain in your sciatic nerve. 
  • Poor posture: sitting for long periods of time may result in poor posture and this in turn could lead to a sciatica flare up. Use our guide to improve your posture or work with your physio on specific sciatica stretches. Otherwise, general stretching activities like tai-chi and yoga are also great ways to improve your posture. 
  • Occupational hazards: for some of us, sitting is an occupational hazard however for those of us with more physically demanding jobs there are other things that could cause a sciatica flare up. If you have a job that requires twisting your back or carrying heavy loads, make sure you are following correct protocol and not lifting more than you are comfortably able to. 
  • Long drives: who doesn’t love a summer road trip; whether you are visiting relatives interstate or going on a holiday with your pooch, driving is a great way to see our beautiful country. Like sitting at a desk all day, spending long periods behind the wheel of a vehicle may cause sciatica to flare up. Take regular breaks and, if possible, share the driving so you can give your shoulders a rest. 
  • Weight gain: carrying extra weight puts pressure on our entire body; our internal organs, muscles and bones. More specifically, weight gain could cause a sciatica flare up by putting pressure on the spine leading to pain in the sciatic nerve. Simple ways to ensure you don’t gain weight include eating  a balanced diet and getting the recommended weekly amount of exercise – this will reduce your chances of a sciatica flare up. 

Physiotherapy to help manage sciatica 

There are a variety of sciatica treatments; some you can self-administer and some that are best undertaken via professional advice – this is where a physio can help with sciatica, and there’s more on that below. 

As always, prevention is better than cure – there are so many benefits of regularly visiting your physiotherapist. In most cases, sciatica is both preventable and treatable, especially if you work with your physio to put together a plan that includes sciatica stretches. 

Some ways to treat sciatica: 

  • Take pain relief medication: you don’t need to suffer; if you experience sciatica pain, take pain relief medication such as Panadol (always follow the packet instructions). 
  • Administer ice packs and take warm baths: like any pain, administering cold or hot packs may bring short term relief. 
  • Rest: at the first flare up of sciatica symptoms it may be advisable to spend a couple days resting to allow your body time to properly heal. While this may be bed rest, complete immobility for longer than a day or so may do more harm than good; resting for too long will cause muscle weakness and potentially exacerbate the sciatica pain.
  • Book an appointment with your physiotherapist: during your appointment you will get general advice on how to continue to manage your overall physical wellbeing, and specific advice on reducing the sciatica symptoms.
  • Do strengthening exercises: your physio will give you strengthening exercises for your entire body. Targeted strengthening exercises for your back muscles will ensure your spine is supported. Be sure to stick to the exercise plan they give you; if you do your pain will reduce and likely won’t return.  
  • Stretch regularly: after you’ve rested for a short period, ease back into movements via gentle stretching of the hamstrings and back. At Physionorth, we run stretching specific classes that may work well as part of your sciatica pain treatment plan. 


If you’re worried about yourself or a family member, or you’d like to ensure you are taking steps to avoid painful sciatica symptoms, book an appointment to have a chat with our experienced physiotherapists at Physionorth who can tailor a plan to help suit your needs.


*All information is general in nature and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Physionorth can consult with you to confirm if this advice is right for you.

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