People With Pain From Sciatica Should Start PT Early, Study Says

mbg Editorial Assistant By Abby Moore
mbg Editorial Assistant
Abby Moore is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Woman Rubbing Back of Neck

Common back pains from sitting all day, sleeping in a strange position, or minor exercise soreness generally resolve on their own. Back pain that permeates throughout the leg (sciatica), however, may be lasting. Despite the common method of rest then recovery, a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine says starting physical therapy (PT) as early as possible is more effective for back pain with sciatica. 

How physical therapy made an impact.

Researchers from the University of Utah Health studied 220 adult patients, between 18 and 60 years old, who had been experiencing back pain and sciatica for an average of 35 days before the study. The participants were split into two treatment groups: one with physical therapy and one without. 

The PT group underwent their treatment for four weeks, which included sciatica exercises and hands-on spinal mobilization techniques. The other group did not receive physical therapy but were encouraged to stay active—aka the "wait-and-see" approach. 

Participants were asked to rate their pain levels, and how that pain interfered with everyday life, after four weeks, six months, and one year. At every check-in, patients in the PT group experienced less pain and greater ability than those without. 

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How to apply the results.

"As is true for everything with back pain, it's not the magic bullet for everybody," lead study author Julie Fritz, P.T., Ph.D., said in a news release. "But it seems that physical therapy is something that can be offered to patients to help them regain their activity and recover more quickly."

According to the researchers, the results were significant enough to be considered meaningful at the four-week point. In other words, timing really is everything. "This clearly says if you intervene early, these patients can do well," co-author of the study Gerard Brennan, P.T., Ph.D., says. 

While they don't know exactly why starting PT early was more effective, the consensus was clear: Starting PT sooner rather than later (or not at all) can improve the physical abilities, and quality of life, for people with back pain and sciatica. 

If you can't start PT right away, try some general sciatic stretches at home. Whereas, if you're experiencing general lower-back discomfort without sciatica, some simple exercises may be most effective for relief.

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