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:
- Degenerative disc disease
- Herniated discs, a pinched nerve, or slipped discs
- Injury to the lower back
- Muscle spasms
- Piriformis syndrome
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Trauma along the nerve
- Spinal compression fractures
- Spinal stenosis
- In rare cases, tumors and severe infections
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:
- Eye-ear-throat conditions
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?