Starting physical therapy immediately after a diagnosis of acute back pain with sciatica results in reduced disability when compared to usual care, a new study has found.

Image of Julie Fritz, PT, Ph.D.
Julie Fritz, PT, Ph.D.

Sciatica occurs when back pain radiates down the leg. Doctors typically advise patients to remain active while waiting for symptoms to subside. But researchers have found that referral to four weeks of physical therapy for recent-onset sciatica improves functioning and delivers additional benefits.

The study involved 220 participants ranging in age from 18 to 60. Half received physical therapy and half were advised to take a wait-and-see approach. At four weeks, six months and one year, they were asked about changes in function. This included the ability to care for themselves and to participate in social activities.

Participants in the physical therapy group experienced clinically significant improvements in outcomes such as pain intensity. They were also more likely to report improved functioning after one year. There was no reduction in healthcare use or missed workdays, reported study lead Julie Fritz, PT, Ph.D., from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

“As is true for everything with back pain, it is not the magic bullet for everybody,” said Fritz. “But it seems that physical therapy is something that can be offered to patients to help them regain their activity and recover more quickly.” 

The study did not examine which components of the physical therapy program had the most beneficial effects.

Full findings were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.