What exactly is acupuncture for sciatica?
Acupuncture is a popular form of traditional Chinese medicine that dates back at least 3000 years. The procedure requires needles inserted into a person’s skin for pain relief and improving his overall health.
Generally, western medicine’s standard of care involved prescribing pain medications and surgery to treat conditions like sciatica. Since pain medications only provide temporary relief and not cure, the usual course is to take them long-term.
However, long-term use of pain medications to treat sciatica has several adverse side effects. Thus, many people are now avoiding pain medications and turning to acupuncture for the treatment of sciatica.
How effective is acupuncture for sciatica?
Before we discuss how effective acupuncture is in treating sciatica, let’s get to know what exactly is sciatica.
What is Sciatica?
Sciatic pain or sciatica is the pain that you feel in your lower back that spreads down to one of your buttocks and on to the back of your legs.
Usually, it only affects the lower right or left side of your body; the pain seldom occurs at both sides.
In severe cases, the pain may extend to a person’s foot or toes. The pain and discomfort make it hard for people to do things they regularly do.
Symptoms of Sciatica
Patients with sciatica may experience acute pain, which is sudden and doesn’t last long. In contrast, some patients suffer from chronic pain, which is long-lasting and often gets worse.
In addition to pain, other symptoms of sciatica are:
- hip pain
- tingling, burning, or loss of sensation
- numbness and weakness making it difficult to move the leg
- pain on one side of the buttocks that won’t go away
Causes of Sciatica
Sciatic pain occurs when your sciatic nerve is being pinched or compressed. The sciatic nerve connects your spinal cord with your skin and the muscles of your thigh, leg, and foot. Often, an acute injury to your lower back results in the compression of your sciatic nerve.
- A herniated disc is one of the common causes of sciatic pain. The swelling or bulging of a disc in your lower back can directly pinch and irritate your sciatic nerve roots, thus causing sciatica.
- Chemical irritants can cause inflammation of your sciatic nerve.
- Physical characteristics of a patient such as being overweight and being tall at old age is another factor that can lead to sciatica.
- Occupational causes: In general, people whose work involves sitting for long periods are more at risk of developing sciatica. Here are occupations of people that are at risk of sciatic pain:
- Truck drivers
- Machine workers
- Athletes such as weightlifters and powerlifters
- Vitamin B12 deficiency often leads to sciatica in older people who are in their 60s. Vitamin B12 is necessary for maintaining normal nerve function.
- Similarly, people with diabetes are prone to sciatic pain. Metformin, a medicine used for treating patients with diabetes, is known to cause malabsorption, meaning it can make you unable to absorb important vitamins and minerals, like vitamin B12, from your diet.
Who is Prone to Sciatica?
Four out of ten people will experience sciatica at some point in their lives. Often, people at the ages between 40 and 50 will get this condition.
Sciatica has been known to occur more in women than in men. However, men have been observed to have undergone surgery for this condition more than women.
Treatment of Sciatica
Western medicine may recommend surgery to repair the root cause of sciatica and other types of back pain. Oral pain medications are also used such as:
- Over-the-counter pain medications such as aspirin and acetaminophen. NSAIDs such as ketoprofen, naproxen, and ibuprofen
- Antidepressants for chronic low back pain treatment
- Prescription pain medications for relieving severe pain
- Prescription muscle relaxants for the relief of muscle spasms
Acupuncture as an alternative treatment to sciatica
Long-term use of pain medications are known to cause:
- fluid retention
- high blood pressure
- kidney problems
- stomach problems
- other allergic reactions
It is also important to note that not all patients with sciatica are candidates for surgery.
Acupuncture offers a gentle alternative to sciatic pain without the harmful side effects. Acupuncture is characterized by the use of fine, sterilized acupuncture needles inserted at precise locations on the patient’s body known as acupuncture points. Acupuncture points have a tremendous amount of overlap with the map of the nervous system, one of the many reasons acupuncture can be so effective for issues involving nerves.
The principle behind acupuncture as a method for treating pain
According to traditional Chinese medicine, health problems are caused by the disturbance to the flow of energy in one’s body. The Chinese call this ‘flow of energy’ as ‘qi’ (pronounced as “chee”).
The process of acupuncture involves inserting fine, sterile needles into the patient’s skin to stimulate the acupoints.
Stimulating the acupuncture points releases qi so it can travel back through the channels, also known as meridians.
Since meridians are just beneath the skin’s surface, the needles don’t have to be inserted deep into the tissue. Meridians correlate to the organ systems of the body such as the:
- lymphatic system
- cardiovascular system
- musculoskeletal system and the
- nervous system
To put it simply, acupuncture points need stimulation to return the ‘flow of energy’ to its normal course and thus, restoring a person’s body into its normal condition.
How does acupuncture work for pain relief?
Needles inserted on to the patient’s body triggers a response from the nervous system. The nervous system’s response to acupuncture can make our brain:
- Release a surge of our body’s natural painkillers such as enkephalins and endorphins
- Increase the flow of blood to the affected area
- Relax the muscles around the affected area
The Study on the Efficacy of Acupuncture for Sciatica
According to a systematic review and meta-analysis, acupuncture is effective and safer for treating lower back and leg pain than medications such as ibuprofen, diclofenac and meloxicam.
However, additional studies are needed to further confirm the findings. There weren’t enough relevant and thorough RCTs in the meta-analysis. Therefore, more rigorous and high-quality clinical trials are needed to further confirm the effectiveness of acupuncture for sciatic pain.
Does acupuncture make you feel uncomfortable?
The short answer is NO. Even patients who are against the use of needles find acupuncture treatment to be a very relaxing experience.
Acupuncture for sciatica specifically can involve local or distal points. Other modalities may be incorporated with the needles such as electro-acupuncture, an additional stimulus to improve the antiinflammatory effects of acupuncture, or moxa, a warm herb that can help relax muscles.
If you are thinking of pursuing acupuncture treatment, make sure to look for a Licensed Acupuncturist as your practitioner.
Acupuncture has been shown to relieve acute pain in patients with sciatica. Beyond the benefit of acute pain relief, acupuncture can potentially assist in healing the underlying cause of your low back pain. It provides a safe, long-term treatment for sciatic pain.