Acupuncture for Sciatica
The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body. It consists of a large bundle of smaller nerves that begin in the lumbar spine, travel down the buttocks, and move through the leg.
Sciatica is a group of symptoms that affect the region of the sciatic nerve. Radiating pain is one of the more common and intense symptoms associated with sciatica. There can also be numbness and tingling starting in the lower back radiating down the leg. Acupuncture is very effective for relieving symptoms of acute and chronic sciatica.
What Causes Sciatica?
Sciatica occurs when something pushes on the sciatic nerve. This can be a muscle spasm, the spinal discs, and sometimes even the spine itself. Most often this pain is due to muscle spasms or a slipped disc, but it can also be a sign of serious illness and it is important to go to your doctor for a diagnosis.
Spinal Disc herniation, often referred to as a slipped disc, is when a small portion of the spinal disc bulges out of the spinal column. This disc then pushes on the sciatic nerve causing pain. In some severe cases, spinal stenosis, or a narrowing of the spinal canal, can push on the nerve and cause pain. Another serious cause of sciatica is spinal tumors, which require immediate medical attention.
Muscle spasms are also a common cause of sciatica. Most often it is the piriformis muscle, but it can be other muscles in the lower back and pelvic region.
Piriformis syndrome can cause chronic sciatica. Sometimes the sciatic nerve runs under or through the piriformis muscle. This muscle is located in the pelvis. It is connected to the bottom of the spine and the top of the femur, or thighbones. If the piriformis muscle starts to spasm or becomes tight, it can put pressure on the sciatic nerve and cause the pain as well as the radiating symptoms. This persistent spasm of the piriformis muscle is called piriformis syndrome. It can be caused by an injury or sedentary lifestyles in people who don’t stretch or exercise. Particularly if you sit all day at a desk or computer, this can be a problem.
Acupuncture’s Approach to Sciatica
Acupuncture and Chinese medicine state that the body is interconnected; no one part can be separated from another. The diagnosis and treatment of sciatica is based upon identifying specific imbalances in the muscles and the body as a whole. Correcting the imbalance does not just treat the symptoms or mask the condition, but rather corrects the root of the problem by encouraging self-healing of the body. Acupuncture treatment of sciatica will focus on relaxing the muscles and stretching the tendons and fascia. It can also help strengthening the muscles.
Acupuncture Diagnosis for sciatica
The most common acupuncture imbalance in acute sciatica is qi and blood stagnation in the back channels. Qi and blood stagnation in the channels often affects the soft tissue of the lumbar, hips, and pelvis. This is what causes the muscle spasm and tension that triggers the intense shooting pain of acute sciatica.
Other common acupuncture imbalances are kidney qi vacuity, spleen qi vacuity with dampness, and liver qi stagnation.
Kidney Qi Vacuity: If your back feels very weak and it does not get better with a lot of rest, the underlying imbalance may be kidney qi vacuity. Other symptoms include weakness of the knees, extreme fatigue, ringing in the ears, dizziness, and a weak pulse.
Spleen Qi Vacuity with Dampness: For those with spleen qi vacuity with dampness, you will also have fatigue and weakness, but the back feels better with rest. Your body may feel very heavy and you may have poor digestion.
Liver Qi stagnation: Liver qi stagnation causes your muscles to be very tight and in spasm when you become angry or frustrated. Also, you may suffer from frequent headaches and, in women, painful menses.
Acupuncture Treatment for Sciatica
I believe the most effective therapy for sciatica includes acupuncture, electro-acupuncture, and Tui Na, which is Chinese medical massage. In some cases, cupping and stretches are very helpful. The back, hip, and pelvis are interconnected and the treatment should incorporate the entire region.
Overall, the acupuncture treatment should relax and stretch the tendons and fascia while strengthening the muscles. This will help release the spastic muscles and strengthen them, allowing the back to naturally heal. It can even encourage an out of place disc to go back into place, depending on severity.
Acupuncture has been shown to reduce pain and inflammation through regulating neural pain pathways, stimulate the release of natural pain relieves in the body, such as opioids, as well as regulate pain relieving opioid receptors. Many studies have also shown acupuncture to have a anti-inflammatory effect, reducing the circulating inflammatory hormones in the blood (1). This will help to reprogram the muscles to stay relaxed, and in effect, encourage the body heal itself.
Chinese massage, or tui na, works to support the acupuncture by releasing any extra tension in the fascia and connective tissue around the muscles. The technique called rolling is very important to deeply relax the muscles and improve circulation at the same time.
After the pain is gone, it is important for you to exercise and stretch to maintain a pain free life.
If you have questions about acupuncture for sciatica, call us 917-887-4946 or click below to make an appointment online.
1. Napadow V, Ahn A, Longhurst J, et.al. The Status and Future of Acupuncture Mechanism Research. J Altern Complement Med. 2008 September; 14(7): 861–869.
Written by Joseph Alban, L.Ac.
Last Edited 12/27/2011