Acupuncture for Sciatica

Acupuncture for sciatica can be a great pain management option for individuals coping with sciatic nerve pain.  Sciatica is often a result of another underlying condition. As many as up to 40% of people report having sciatica pain in their lifetime.  In this article we investigate the causes of sciatic pain, symptoms, and the many benefits of acupuncture for sciatica.  

What is Sciatica Pain?

Sciatica is known in the medical world as lumbar radiculopathy, and refers to pain that radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve which spreads out through the lower back, buttocks, and hips. The term “sciatica” is often confused with general back pain, however it is not only limited to the back. The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in the human body. In a normal case, sciatica affects one side of the body, but can affect both. Some cases of sciatic pain may be severe, and become a chronic issue.  In some cases, sciatic pain can resolve within about 4 – 6 weeks. 

Symptoms of sciatica:

  • Pain radiates from the lower lumbar spine to the buttock, and down the back of the leg.

  • Varying pain from mild ache to sharp, burning sensation or severe pain

  • Can sometimes feel like a jolt or electric shock

  • Numbness

  • Tingling in the feet & toes

  • Muscle weakness on affected side leg or foot

The interesting part of sciatica is that you may have pain in one part of your leg and numbness in another part. Sciatica happens when the sciatic nerve becomes pinched, and being that sciatica is a symptom not a condition, it points to other possible underlying medical conditions.

Causes of sciatica:

  • Herniated disc – the spinal column is made up of vertebra, nerves, and discs. The discs in our spine act as a shock absorber for daily wear and tear on the spine allowing the spine to be more flexible. It is made of cartilage, and the herniation occurs when a disc is pushed out of place putting pressure on the sciatic nerve.  This is the most common cause of sciatica pain making up an estimated 90% of cases.

  • Lumbar spinal stenosis – narrowing of the spinal cord in the lower back

  • Tumors of the spine – having tumors on the spine can compress the root of the sciatic nerve.

  • Spondylolisthesis – this is a condition in which the disc slips forward over the vertebrae below it.

  • Injury – if there is an injury within the spine.

  • Cauda equina syndrome – a severe & rare condition that affects the nerves in the lower part of the spinal cord. This condition requires immediate medical attention. An indication of this would be all of the symptoms of sciatica pain along with the loss of bowel or bladder control.

Although these conditions are usually the underlying conditions that bring about sciatica pain, in some cases there is no single obvious cause.  There are also some conditions that have symptoms that feel similar to sciatic pain such as a pelvic muscle spasm, a broken hip bone, arthritic joint, or the dysfunction of a joint in the pelvis that are in fact not sciatica related. There are even some studies that suggest that some people may even have a genetic predisposition to sciatica. However, as with any underlying condition, there are risk factors involved with the development of sciatic pain. 

Risk factors of sciatica:

  • Occupation – hard labor jobs or any job that requires you to twist your back, drive a motor vehicle for long periods of time, or carry heavy loads.

  • Diabetes – affecting the way your body uses sugar, this condition can increase risk of nerve damage.

  • Age – as we age, there are natural changes to our spine. This can cause bulging or herniated discs & bone spurs which are the most common causes of sciatica.

  • Prolonged sitting – those who have a sedentary lifestyle or those who sit for prolonged periods of time (such as those maybe with an office job) are more likely to develop sciatica than those who are more active.

  • Obesity – being overweight increases the stress on the spine which also can trigger spinal changes that trigger sciatica. 

For those with acute sciatica, most typical western medicine treatment options are over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen, exercise such as light stretching or walking, and hot or cold compress packs to reduce the pain. 

Similarly, those who suffer from chronic sciatica in the western world of medicine rely on treatments like physical therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and painkillers. If none of these treatments make a difference for the patient, or if the pain continues to intensify, surgeries like a lumbar laminectomy (widening of the spinal cord) or discectomy (removal of all or part of herniated disc) may be recommended. However, there are other options that lie within eastern medicine to gain control over sciatic pain which include acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine.

Acupuncture & Sciatica

Acupuncture for sciatica is a gentle, safe, and side-effect free alternative for managing your pain. Regular acupuncture treatment for both acute & chronic sciatica pain helps to manage and even potentially resolve the patient’s underlying condition over time. Your licensed acupuncturist will do an in depth consultation to determine the best acupuncture points and possibly herbal remedies for your treatment plan.

An acupuncture consultation consists of:

  • Analyzing the patient’s symptoms

  • Measuring the pulse

  • Going over an in depth medical history

  • Observing the tongue

The color and texture of the tongue will help your licensed acupuncturist determine what your traditional Chinese medicine diagnosis is, and make a proper treatment plan with the correct acupuncture points & herbs. 

By inserting the hair-thin needles into specific points along the body, those needles create micro-trauma to the skin and trigger a response from the nervous system. 

Acupuncture for sciatica helps by:

  • Releasing natural painkillers (such as endorphins & serotonin) which can help reduce pain and speed up nerve repair

  • Increasing blood flow to the area in pain

  • Relaxing the muscles in the surrounding area

  • Reducing inflammation

  • Increasing circulation in the sciatic nerve

  • Promoting regeneration of the sciatic nerve

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the body is viewed as interconnected; no one part of the body can be separated from the other. The diagnosis & treatment of sciatica is based on recognizing specific imbalances in the muscles and the whole body, then correcting it. By correcting this imbalance in the body, it does not just mask the condition or just treat the symptoms, but corrects the root of the problem by initiating self-healing mechanisms in the body.

Acupuncture Points & Diagnoses for Sciatica

A common traditional Chinese medicine diagnosis when it comes to sciatica is Qi (pronounced “chee” & means life force or energy) and Blood stagnation. This means that these are blocked in the channels of the body which affects the soft tissue of the lumbar, hips, and pelvis & causes the triggering of the intense shooting pain of sciatica. By using the proper acupuncture points, your licensed acupuncturist’s goal is to relax the muscles, strengthen them, and allow them to naturally heal. 

Traditional Chinese Medicine common underlying imbalances for sciatica:

  • Kidney Qi Deficiency- if your back is very weak, and it does not get better with rest. Other symptoms with this diagnosis may include extreme fatigue, ringing in the ears, dizziness, weak pulse, and a weakness of the knees.

  • Liver Qi Stagnation – this causes the muscles to be very tight & spasm when you become frustrated or angry. Other symptoms may include frequent headaches and painful menses in women.

  • Spleen Qi Deficiency with dampness – much like with the kidney qi vacuity, there will also be extreme fatigue & weakness, but with this, the back feels better with rest. Other symptoms may be poor digestion and the body feeling very heavy. 

By treating the underlying imbalance of the body, the pain is treated, with the ultimate goal of preventing the sciatica from returning.  

When it comes to sciatica, many times acupuncturists will not only place the hair-thin needles on the back, but also along the lower calf/ankle, and along the wrist and forearm. Their goal is to increase blood flow & muscle relaxation around the lumbar vertebrae then target the sciatic nerve to influence blood flow regulation along the pathway of pain radiating to the leg. 

Acupuncture points for sciatica:

  • UB32 – Second Bone Hole – Ci Liao – located on the lumbar spine. This point helps with sciatic pain, aids with mobility in the lower limbs, and loss of sensation in the lower limbs.

  • UB36 – Support – Cheng Fu – located on the back of the thigh at the very top near the gluteal crease. This point helps with low back pain/sciatica where the pain runs down the back of the leg.

  • UB37 – Gate of Abundance – Yin Men – located about midway down the back of the thigh. This point strengthens the spine and alleviates low back pain, sciatica pain, local hamstring, thigh pain, and leg pain.

  • UB38 – Superficial Cleft – Fu Xi – located at the back of the knee. This point helps with pain along the meridian in the thigh and outer thigh.

  • GB30 – Jumping Around – Huan Tiao – located on the side of the glutes. This point helps with sciatica, pain, atrophy of the lower back, hip, buttocks, and/or lower limbs, painful obstruction or weakness of the leg.

After the sciatica pain is gone, it is important to continue acupuncture treatments to maintain your healthy condition. Your acupuncturist may advise you to keep stretching, and incorporate something like Tai Chi (Chinese exercise & meditation) to keep the muscles relaxed.

Acupuncture for Sciatica Pain

Acupuncture works for sciatica by getting to the root issue. There continues to be more patients turning to acupuncture for help with their sciatica pain, especially when other methods such as painkillers are not doing the trick.  Prescription pain killers or steroid injections may help for a brief period of time but can ultimately cause harm to the body through side-effects or addiction.  

Research is supportive of acupuncture for sciatica. 

Two meta-analyses were done in 2015 – The Efficiency of Acupuncture for the Treatment of Sciatica, and Comparative Clinical Effectiveness of Management Strategies for Sciatica. Both of these studies proved not only that acupuncture is safe, effective, and well tolerated, but also holds its own in effectiveness amongst current western treatments like over-the-counter drugs and even disc surgery. 

Additionally, a study in 2011 – A Randomized Controlled Study on Proximal Needling for Sciatica proved both traditional acupuncture needling (including local & distal points) and proximal needling (local acupuncture points) to be 100% effective in both groups at the 3 month follow up, and a higher effective rate in the local points group after 5 treatments. 

Essentially, acupuncture for sciatica pain can be very helpful for the treatment of this condition.  Contact an acupuncturist near you today to find out if acupuncture for sciatica is right for you.

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