Sciatica refers to the wide range of symptoms that may result from a herniated disc, spinal compression, or bone spurs on the spine.
In typical cases, a person will present with pain along the back of the leg and hip, usually on just one side of the body. This might be an aching, burning, tingling, or shooting pain (or a combination of any of these), and can range in severity from mild to agonizing. Some risk factors for sciatica are preventable – like chronic poor posture and obesity – but some are not.
- Back strain in pregnancy
- Diabetic nerve damage
- Degenerative disc disease
- Back injuries
- Spinal tumors
Sciatica often goes undiagnosed for months or years. Sometimes, in mild cases, suffers will dismiss the discomfort as simple muscle cramping. Doctors may choose not to investigate sciatica symptoms if they aren’t interfering with the patient’s mobility or bladder control, unless they suspect a serious trigger – like a tumor pressing on the spine. This leaves many sciatica sufferers to seek relief from pain and stiffness elsewhere. Frequently, they end up in acupuncture clinics like my own.
Western Treatments for Sciatica
Western medicine offers a number of treatments for sciatica, but it’s not clear how effective these are in moderate to severe cases. When home remedies like gentle stretching and basic painkillers aren’t enough, patients often work with their doctors and seek physical therapy, stronger medications (including antidepressants, high-dose painkillers, and anticonvulsants), spinal corticosteroid injections, and even surgery. These more extreme measures will not work for everyone, as they only target a few of the causes of sciatica.
Sciatica in Chinese Medicine
Chinese medicine views all conditions as unique to the individual. This means that, ideally, medicine should not be practiced as a cookie-cutter protocol for treating a specific ailment. Rather, emphasis should be placed on better understanding the person seeking assistance. To accomplish this, practitioners must first tease out the complete story of the individual in pain. This narrative will include habits, emotions, and lifestyle choices, as well as answers to questions about seemingly unrelated body systems. We can appreciate the bigger picture if we let the story of a life unfold in light of the presenting symptomatology. This bigger picture allows us to effectively organize a methodology to unravel the obstruction.
Once this information is collected through conversation, palpation, and visual inspection, the practitioner will be able to see how the patient arrived at this present moment. And, more importantly, she or he will seek a route to disentangle the present impediment and foster a “righting of the individual’s course.”
In sciatica, there may be any number of underlying patterns that form the root cause of the problem. In Chinese medical terminology, sciatica may be sub-classified by underlying etiologies relating to kidney qi deficiency, kidney yang deficiency, kidney yin and liver blood deficiency, or wind-cold bi obstruction. Each of these core disharmonies requires very different treatment strategies and, potentially, the activation of various channel systems.
Can acupuncture treat sciatica?
In the late-90s and early-2000s, a number of published studies suggested that acupuncture may ease the pain related to sciatica. These generally had small sample sizes, however, and the participants with sciatica were observed at the same time as others with different kinds of lower-body pain. As a result, researchers found it difficult to determine how effective acupuncture is for sciatica specifically.
Today, we have the benefit of larger and more targeted clinical trials, meta-analyses and systematic reviews. With increased awareness of how acupuncture works and how it should be studied, the research we have today is of a higher quality than ever before. I’m happy to report that the most current research into acupuncture for sciatica is showing what I have observed in my practice for years: it not only works; it probably works better than Western treatments.
One meta-analysis published earlier this year looked at studies comparing acupuncture to prescription medication, and found that acupuncture is likely to be more effective than pharmaceuticals. This is excellent news for people who have found no success with prescriptions, who have developed a tolerance for them, or who want to avoid the hormonal complications that can result from long-term use. It may also provide peace of mind for those who simply prefer gentler therapies.
This study backs up the results of a review from 2015, which showed that “acupuncture was more effective than conventional Western medicine (CWM) in outcomes effectiveness…” It’s likely that we will see more and more of these types of studies as top hospitals continue to offer acupuncture for conditions that conventional medicine is ill-equipped to treat.
Sciatica is a painful condition that can profoundly impact your quality of life if it goes untreated. But when serious or life-threatening causes are ruled out, doctors are often unable to provide effective therapies for reducing chronic pain. Whether your symptoms are mild or severe, you do not have to put up with sciatic pain simply because the treatments you’ve tried before haven’t worked. Since clinical research has repeatedly shown how effective acupuncture can be for sciatica sufferers, I suggest finding a licensed and experienced acupuncturist who will work with you to ease the pain and improve your mobility.