Back Pain or Sciatica?

“I think I may have sciatica, but I’m not sure. I have pain that travels down my leg, isn’t that sciatic pain? The discomfort in my back and leg seem different, how do I know if they’re related to each other? How do I just get rid of this pain?”

Chances are you, or someone you know has experienced thoughts like these before. You may have heard others talk about sciatic pain and the symptoms associated with it, but have been unsure how accurate their information is or what to do with that information. So where does sciatic pain come from? How can someone know if their leg pain is the result of low back problems? These are great questions that a licensed physical therapist can help answer, and also address.

Our low back, or lumbar spine, absorbs and transmits forces throughout our lives. The lumbar spine is also the source of excessive force in many cases, whether it be from vigorous physical activity or prolonged stress from poor posture. As much as 80% of individuals will have at least one episode of back pain during their lifetime (Rubin et al. 2007), which often affects their daily activities. There are a wide variety of potential causes of low back pain, and therefore a wide variety of treatment options to address these causes. Low back pain research has shown that early participation in physical therapy was associated with a reduced risk of advanced imaging, additional physician visits, surgery, injections, and opioid medications, compared to delayed participation in physical therapy (Fritz et al. 2012).

The sciatic nerve is made up of nerves that originate in our low back and then travel along a specific route into each of our legs to allow them to work effectively. The sciatic nerve is relatively large as it can be as wide as two centimeters in diameter (Davis and Vasudevan. 2019). The sciatic nerve, like other nerves, serves a specific purpose for our bodies but can be compromised by abnormal stresses. Sciatica refers to the presence of symptoms arising from sciatic nerve irritation in one leg. Those symptoms can include tingling, burning, muscle weakness, discomfort, or pain. Determining whether those symptoms are the result of a localized problem in muscles, abnormal nerve function, or a low back issue requires
specific testing.

Licensed physical therapists understand the specific anatomy of the body, and are trained to perform special measurements/tests to determine the potential root causes of a patient’s symptoms. By performing a thorough clinical examination, a physical therapist can then identify what may be causing these symptoms, and address the source. In doing so, a physical therapist can help a patient with leg pain or low back pain gain the ability to effectively address their symptoms and progress towards regaining normal movement.

Our licensed physical therapists at Excel Physical Therapy spend one-on-one time with each patient and are specially trained to perform evaluations of low back pain, as well as sciatica. Contact us today to help you or a loved one recover and achieve their physical therapy goals.

By:  Josh Tizzard, PT

1.RubinDI.Epidemiologyand risk factors for spinepain.NeurolClin.2007;25(2):353–371.
2.FritzJM,etal.Primarycare referralofpatientswith lowBackpain tophysical therapy impacton futurehealthcareutilization
and costs.Spine.2012;37(25):2114–2121.
3.DavisD,VasudevanA.Sciatica. [Updated2019Feb28]. In:StatPearls [Internet].Treasure Island (FL):StatPearlsPublishing;
2019.Available from:

Click to view our June 2019 Newsletter to learn more about back pain and sciatica at Excel Physical Therapy!



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