Giving into traditional medicine to understand and cure illnesses has been an age-old practice. Before allopathy existed, traditional doctors took it upon themselves to research treatment methods that involved eccentric techniques like using blood-sucking leeches to rid the body of impure blood. Others included using animal dung, herbs, and so on.
One such that stands out and is still regarded as a trusted treatment is acupuncture. It is a type of holistic therapy that ensures the treatment of many diseases, psychological or physiological. Originally a component of traditional Chinese, acupuncture has since become mainstream, and you’re likely to see a global practice of it through certified acupuncturists.
The treatment involves inserting very thin needles through a person’s skin at specific points on the body to various depths. According to British Acupuncture Council, substantial research shows that acupuncture is considered standard medical care for back pain.
In this blog, we are discussing the direct relationship between sciatica and acupuncture while expanding on the benefits and risks that involve this practice.
What is Sciatica?
Sciatica is a term that describes pain or numbness along the sciatic nerve from the lower back to the buttocks and eventually legs. Sciatica tends to affect one side of your body. The medical term for this is lumbar radiculopathy. The sciatic nerve pain is shockingly more common than you’d think; that too debilitating for a patient who is experiencing the pain.
The discomfort starts along the nerve pathway, especially from the lower back to your buttock and the back of your thigh and calf. You can experience pain in different ranges, from a mild ache to a sharp burning sensation or excruciating, uncontrollable pain. Patients have reported it as a jolt or electric shock and can significantly worsen if you are to sneeze or cough for a prolonged time.
It occurs due to two reasons: the nerve’s compression in the lower back due to long-term degeneration of the lumbar area or an acute injury to the lower back. The severity of the leg pain is subject to the location where the sciatic nerve is being compressed in the lower back.
How is the Pain Caused?
One of the common reasons for sciatica pain is a degenerative disease where there is a breakdown of discs that provide a cushion between the vertebrae. Another is a fracture in the wing-shaped portion of vertebrae which causes it to slip forward over another vertebra.
Many pregnant women experience sciatica due to the extra weight they carry that presses onto the lumbar spine. A herniated lumbar disc i.e., slip disc where the cushion between the vertebrae is pushed to the outer portion of the spine, can also result in sciatic pain.
Acupuncture for Sciatica
A research study in the BMJ journal suggests that spinal manipulation and acupuncture are non-opioid medications or treatments that have shown promising results. In China, sciatica is a primary cause of hospitalization, and acupuncture is commonly used for managing this neuralgia pain.
Traditional Chinese medicine states that the body has more than 2000 points where you can insert thin needles. They are connected by pathways or meridians that create a flow of energy called Qi.
It is the stimulation of these points that corrects qi’s imbalance and improves the flow of energy. The goal is to relieve pain and improve health. The effect of acupuncture is said to stimulate the central nervous system, triggering chemicals released into the muscles, brain, and spinal cord.
How Does it Work?
Acupuncture needles are inserted into your body’s pressure points that we discussed earlier; this stimulates the nervous system. It releases endorphins, improving the pain severity in your body. In the long term, it is said to change your body’s response to pain.
While different acupuncturists will use other protocols based on their background and the patient’s situation, here are some points that you can imagine are potential sites for puncturing with the needles.
- Along the wrist/forearm area
- Inside the lower calf/ankle
This type of needling is called distal needling, while you might have generally heard of local needling. The pressure points to relieve sciatica pain need to be at different locations or a distance from the site of pain.
The idea behind this is to use the connection between different body areas to send blood from them to areas that need help to heal the sciatic nerve pain. After a thorough conversation with your acupuncturist, you can also use acupressure to practice acupressure at home for instant relief.
This means using your finger to apply sustained pressure onto acupoints, stimulating the nervous system without needles.
Benefits of Acupuncture for Sciatica
Acupuncture is intrinsically connected to the nervous system; thus, researches suggest that it may help relieve tension, headaches, and migraines. It helps back pain and sciatica by
- Reducing inflammation by promoting the release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors.
- Stimulating nerves in the body located explicitly in muscles and other tissues, leading to the release of endorphins and other neurohumoral factors. It also changes how the brain and spinal cord process pain.
- Increasing the levels of serotonin and noradrenaline helps to reduce pain and speeds up nerve repair.
- Improving muscle stiffness and joint mobility by increasing the local microcirculation helps spread or disperse the swelling you might be facing.
- Promoting the regeneration of the sciatic nerve.
- Speeding the relay of electromagnetic signals which begins the flow of pain-killing chemicals.
- Triggering the release of natural opioids that help with pain and promote sleep.
Risks or Side Effects
Generally, acupuncture is a medicinal practice that, if performed by an experienced acupuncturist, is going to leave you with little to no side effects. You might rarely counteract serious infections or punctures to your organs as the needling is subcutaneously done.
In comparison to other pain-relieving medicines for back pain, acupuncture has fewer adverse side effects. However, much like any other therapy out there, this too has its risks, albeit mild.
Needling a person with a bleeding disorder or someone that takes blood thinners can be potentially dangerous as it will take time for the bleeding to subside. This can result in unnecessary blood loss, making the patient feel weak.
If the needles aren’t correctly sterilized, there is a likelihood of you counteracting an unknown disease. Ensure the practitioner uses sterilized equipment; ask if you are in doubt but always be careful.
If the needle breaks and damages an internal organ in very rare cases, it can require surgery. But acupuncture needles are made sturdy enough not to break, nor are they inserted deep enough to reach any organs.
When a needle is inserted deeply into the chest, you may be at the risk of a lung collapsing, but this too is quite rare as the needle will have to go through multiple layers in your body to reach the lung.
While there remains a question mark about whether acupuncture will be accepted as a scientifically proven therapeutic procedure, people claim that it works by balancing vital energy. Some say it can affect your nervous system and improve your pain management system.
While the jury is still out on this, studies are emerging that are invested in understanding acupuncture and have shown promising results for this traditional practice.
Author Michael Kaliko DC