It may sound counterintuitive to stick a needle into yourself to relieve pain. After all, don’t most people dread going to the doctor for shots? Turns out, though, something as simple as a needle may be the key to pain relief. Acupuncture for sciatica works to ease your pain as part of an integrated, complementary approach. Here’s how acupuncture works for this condition.

What is sciatica?

Sciatica is not so much as condition as it is a syndrome, but it can be debilitating.

Your sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in the body. It originates in the lower back and travels deep into the glutes, across the hip, and down the leg to end at the feet on both sides of your body. Any injury or damage to this nerve anywhere along its length can cause what is referred to as sciatica—pain or other symptoms that are related to the sciatic nerve.

The symptoms of sciatica are hard to miss. They include:

  • Burning pain in the hip and lower back
  • Pain that radiates anywhere from the lower back to the feet
  • Pain that is usually located on one side of the body
  • Tightness in the calf muscle or hamstrings
  • “Pins and needles” anywhere along the nerve (most often in the toes)
  • Numbness in the lower extremities
  • Pain that worsens when you change positions (i.e., from sitting to standing)

Severe sciatica symptoms that require emergency care can include loss of bowel or bladder control and extreme or sudden muscle weakness.

Acupuncture for sciatica

In many cases, acupuncture for sciatica treats not only sciatic pain, but also the underlying inflammation and injury that caused it in the first place. The energy lines running through your body and the healing triggered in the brain by acupuncture can be very beneficial to the whole body system, as we’ll explore in more detail below.

Some common causes of sciatica include:

Acupuncture’s benefits go beyond pain, though.

Pain, whether chronic or acute, comes with a significant amount of stress and anxiety. People who receive acupuncture at specific relaxation points have a lowered heart rate and stress response. They also report better sleep and less anxiety overall.

Acupuncture for sciatica offers pain relief, stress relief, and better sleep, all with no drug interactions and few, if any side effects. And, acupuncture is also used as a complementary therapy for other non-pain conditions, including:

  • Nausea
  • Migraine
  • Infertility
  • Eye-ear-throat conditions
  • Allergies
  • Addiction
  • Impotence

Is acupuncture good for sciatica?

As an experience-based practice, acupuncture for sciatica has thousands of years of anecdotal support. In modern science, evidence is mounting to show acupuncture’s efficacy and benefits. This is what the latest research suggests.

Acupuncture works as well (or better) than medication

A review of studies that includes 12 separate studies and nearly 2,000 patients found that acupuncture was as effective in treating sciatica as Western medical approaches focused on medication.

This review considered pain relief, duration, and improved quality of life.

In combination, acupuncture and conventional medicine work wonders

Even though acupuncture for sciatica seems to relieve pain better than medication alone, acupuncture and other conventional treatments ease pain nearly 100% of the time.

The linked study also found that the combination of acupuncture and western medicine also significantly reduced inflammation.

Acupuncture provides long-lasting pain relief

Another metanalysis of studies found that not only was acupuncture statistically effective in relieving pain, but relief lasted.

Patients in the analysis had pain relief that lasted for 12 months or more when they received between six and 15 sessions of acupuncture.

How does acupuncture for sciatica work?

Acupuncture for sciatica works on many different levels.

In traditional Chinese medicine, practitioners believe that placing acupuncture needles at specific points in the body help to release stuck “qi” (energy) that is causing pain or disease. Western medicine has found that acupuncture needles (also called “pins”) stimulate the brain’s central nervous system. Once this occurs, the brain responds with biochemical changes that promote healing and pain relief.

Sciatica acupuncture points also seem to trigger a healing response in the body. When pins are inserted in specific areas, the body responds by flooding the area with an immune-type response that includes increased blood flow. Increased blood flow speeds healing and is protective of further injury to the area.

Your acupuncturist may use traditional acupuncture, or they may recommend other related treatments, such as:

Each of these practices has the same goal: to encourage the body to heal.

What can I expect during my sciatica acupuncture appointment?

Your first sciatica acupuncture appointment will be your longest. Acupuncturists take a holistic approach to healing. This means that they will take a detailed medical history from you, including:

  • Current symptoms
  • When they started, how long they last, and any known triggers
  • Your lifestyle, including diet and exercise
  • Family medical history
  • Any stressful life events or traumas

They will then conduct a physical examination, but it might not be what you expect.

You’ll first make yourself comfortable on a soft examination table, fully clothed. Your acupuncturist will take your pulses on both sides of your body. Holding your wrist, they are looking not for the beat of your heart but for the pulse of the deeper energy channels (meridians) that might be blocked, weak, deficient, or overworking.

After they take pulses on both sides of your body, they may look at your tongue as many disorders and conditions can be seen in the various parts of the tongue.

Once your acupuncturist has taken your pulses, they will begin treatment. They’ll insert hair-thin acupuncture pins along specific sciatica acupuncture points to stimulate healing. After the pins are inserted, they will leave the room, instructing you to rest and breathe quietly. When they return, they will remove your pins, check your pulses, and either insert a few more pins or end treatment.

The treatment itself will take between 20 and 30 minutes but expect your first appointment to be around an hour and a half long.

How many needles will be used?

Your acupuncturist will use as few needles as possible to achieve the desired effect. Anywhere between five and 20 needles will be used in a treatment.

The final number really depends on the condition you are treating and the stage of treatment.

Does acupuncture hurt?

Thinking about being stuck with 20 needles can be scary, but these are not the needles you are used to. Acupuncture for sciatica leg pain uses hair-thin needles from between .12 mm to .35 mm. The thinnest needles are reserved for thinner skin, where you might be more sensitive.

But does acupuncture for sciatica hurt?

Most patients would say no. Many don’t feel the needles being placed at all. Others fall asleep during the session because they’re so relaxed. Those that do experience pain generally report a small, brief pinch that quickly goes away. There are some points on the feet that can be intense, but these sensations are fleeting.

If you are concerned with pain, talk to your acupuncturist. They can help ease your mind and move as slowly as you need to.

How many acupuncture treatments are needed for sciatica?

Again, this answer varies depending on the condition being treated and the severity of your symptoms. In the studies above, most patients received a minimum of six treatments, with some receiving more.

Expect to have more frequent treatments during the acute phases of acupuncture for sciatica. As symptoms recede, you may begin to taper your appointments to an “as-needed” basis or on a regular, infrequent schedule. Ultimately, your acupuncturist will be able to walk you through what to expect once they have a better understanding of your symptoms.

Are there side effects to acupuncture for sciatica?

One of the main benefits of acupuncture is that there are few, if any, side effects. Those that do occur are mild and short-lived.

You may experience mild soreness or bruising at the needle site. Some patients have minor bleeding (a drop or two) after pin removal. Others might experience dizziness.

In exceedingly rare cases, patients may experience localized internal bleeding, hepatitis B, nerve damage, and increased pain. Reduce your chances of serious side effects drastically by finding an acupuncturist through a professional directory (e.g., the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine).

How else will an acupuncturist help?

Working with an acupuncturist usually goes far beyond visiting an office to get stuck with pins once a week. Because acupuncture focuses on holistic healing, your acupuncturist may offer other healing treatments, such as:

  • Nutritional counseling
  • Instruction on meditation or meditative exercise (e.g., yoga or tai chi)
  • Massage
  • Energy work (e.g. reiki)

In addition to these treatments, acupuncturists work closely with your pain management team to fully integrate their treatments for best results. Remember the research above? A comprehensive approach that takes the best from traditional Chinese and western medicine is most successful for the majority of patients.

What are other sciatica treatments?

Sciatica pain is often the most stubborn and challenging pain to treat. Acupuncture for sciatica is remarkably effective, but when used in combination with other approaches the effect is magnified.

Other sciatica treatments can also include:

  • Mindfulness meditation: This simple practice changes the way a patient interacts with their pain
  • Nutritional counseling: An anti-inflammatory diet can help ease sciatic pain and inflammation
  • Sciatica massage: Performed by a professional or at home
  • Sciatica exercise: Simple sciatica stretches can help ease pain
  • TENS unit therapy: Replaces pain signals with mild tingling
  • Physical therapy: Targeted exercise brings muscular support to areas collapsed onto the sciatic nerve
  • Chiropractic care: Realigning the spine can help restore balance to the body
  • Injections: Injections help relieve pain so that other treatments can be incorporated (e.g., physical therapy)
  • Radiofrequency ablation: RFA uses heat to damage the pain-signaling nerves
  • Surgery: Surgery is a treatment of last resort when other conservative measures are not effective

Get help with your sciatica pain

Pain specialists develop pain management plans that utilize a variety of methods to help you find relief. Incorporating acupuncture for sciatica as part of a tailored, individualized pain treatment plan can help you get your life back.

Find a pain specialist in Arizona or Texas by clicking the button below or look for one in your area by using the tips here:

Find Your Pain Doctor


Weekly updates on conditions, treatments, and news about everything happening inside pain medicine.

You have Successfully Subscribed!