Acupuncture for Sciatica
By Grace Ganel, L.Ac., Dipl.Ac., C.Z.B.
Sciatica is a painful condition which affects the lower back, legs, and sometimes feet. Sciatica is caused when the sciatic nerve is compressed or otherwise impacted by nearby structures and inflammation. Because this nerve carries sensory information from the legs and feet, the patient experiences strong nerve pain symptoms in these regions. Sometimes the pain just happens on one side but it can also happen on both sides. Sciatica is quite common, with 10-40% of people reporting sciatic pain at some point in their lifetime (1).
Nerve pain is often sharp, electric, or burning in nature, though not always. Therefore sciatic pain is often debilitating, as it really grabs your attention to have shooting pains in your legs! It is important to manage sciatic pain in order to restore full functioning and enjoy higher quality of life.
What Does an Acupuncturist Do to Treat Sciatica?
An acupuncturist might directly needle into the low back and upper legs where the pain originates. It is also possible to treat pain without needling where it hurts. Acupuncture aims to treat the whole person, not just the symptom. The root causes of sciatica according to Chinese medicine vary across cases. Pain that originates in the low back is commonly related to the Bladder and Kidney channels.
The Bladder channel runs from head to toe, and the Kidney channel runs from the bottom of the foot to the upper chest. Your acupuncturist may needle points along the trajectories of these channels to influence the low back and legs. In addition, there are theories that connect other channels and body regions to these channels. I might aim to treat the low back using the hand, the wrist, the scalp, or other regions. I commonly use needles, Zero Balancing, acupressure, moxibustion, gua sha, cupping, and qigong to support someone with sciatic pain.
Does Acupuncture Help Manage Sciatic Pain?
In a 2015 meta-review analysis of several randomized and controlled studies, the results supported the use of acupuncture compared to conventional treatments, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Both acupuncture alone and acupuncture plus NSAIDs outperformed NSAIDs alone in reducing sciatic pain intensity. The authors of the meta-analysis stated that more studies are needed which are more rigorous and have larger sample sizes, but concluded that acupuncture is a promising treatment for sciatic pain compared to NSAIDs (2).
Many people want to manage sciatic pain with less medication. Acupuncture might just be a great way to help reduce your reliance on pain medication for sciatica.