Sciatica or lumbosacral radicular syndrome is a condition in which you experience pain along the sciatic nerve, which is the longest nerve in the human body and extends from the pelvic region all the way down to your feet. Acupuncture has been traditionally used in China for over 3000 years. According to this ancient Chinese system of medicine, diseases are caused by blockages in the flow of the vital energy or Qi that moves through channels called meridians. A review of scientific literature shows an abundance of studies which have found acupuncture to be useful in treating sciatica through various mechanisms that relieve pain. There is also some evidence that acupuncture could help in nerve regeneration.
Whether it’s because of lifestyle factors or the pressures of daily life, back pain has become all too common. And of the 49–70% of people who have reported lower back pain at some point in their lives, 5–10% cases can be traced to sciatica.1 Sciatica or lumbosacral radicular syndrome is a condition in which you experience pain along the sciatic nerve, the longest nerve in the human body that extends from the pelvic region all the way down to your feet. When the sciatic nerve is irritated or compressed, pain radiates from your lower back down the leg to your foot – often accompanied by a tingling sensation or numbness. Some people also experience weakness in the muscles of the leg that is affected. The pain could worsen when you sneeze or cough or if you’ve been sitting for a while.2
In most cases, sciatica is caused by a herniated disc, where a disc that sits in between the bones of the spine exerts pressure on the nerves. A spinal infection or injury, some growth (like a tumor) in the spine, or spinal stenosis (where the nerve passages in the spine become narrow) can also cause sciatica. Sciatica often resolves on its own (in about six weeks) without any treatment. If it persists, training with a physiotherapist can help. Injections of anti-inflammatory medication or painkillers into the spine or strong painkilling tablets are also used to treat sciatica. In rare cases, surgery may also be advised.3 But the medication used for sciatica may not suit everybody and can have side effects; and surgery is an expensive and invasive proposition. So, what’s the alternative for a person with sciatica who’s not had success with (or faith in) the mainstream treatment options?
Acupuncture might have some answers. The British Acupuncture Council cites several studies to show that acupuncture can be a much better option than not getting any treatment and that it fares as well as, if not better than, conventional treatment.4
What Is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture has been traditionally used in China for over 3000 years.5 According to this ancient Chinese system of medicine, diseases are caused by blockages in the flow of the vital energy or Qi that moves through channels called meridians. During acupuncture, fine needles are inserted at specific points in the body to remove these blockages. Non-needling techniques can also be used to stimulate acupuncture points, for instance, through suction (cupping), by applying pressure with fingers (acupressure), or by applying heat with burning pieces of the mugwaort plant (moxibustion). Lasers and electric currents are also used for stimulating acupuncture points sometimes. Traditional Chinese acupuncture treatments may also include herbal formulations and advice on diet and lifestyle.6
Acupuncture’s role in treating conditions like lower back pain, migraines, nausea after surgery or chemotherapy, neck pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and osteoarthritis is well established.7 Western medicine too often recommends acupuncture after a thorough review of individual cases. So can acupuncture help with sciatica?
Acupuncture And Sciatica
Many studies have found acupuncture to be useful in treating sciatica.8 It is cited as working through more than one mechanism.
- Acupuncture stimulates nerves present in muscles and other tissues, which in turn leads to the release of neurohumoral factors (pertaining to the nervous system or hormonal system) like endorphins which change how pain is processed in the spinal cord and brain.9 The result is relief from pain and a sense of well-being.
- It influences neurotrophic factor signaling. These growth factors have a role to play in cell survival and affect neuropathic pain.10
- There is some indication that nerve blood flow is reduced in sciatica. In addition to relieving pain, acupuncture can cause a positive change in the blood flow in the sciatic nerve.11
- It increases the levels of noradrenaline and serotonin which can lower pain and quicken nerve repair.12
- Research that looked at the effect of acupuncture on crushed sciatic nerves in animal subjects found that it promotes nerve regeneration.13
Acupuncture is generally safe when it is done by a trained practitioner. A certified acupuncturist can help decide what’s best in your case and take you through the process.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Management of the lumbosacral radicular syndrome (sciatica): Health Council of the Netherlands, 1999; publication no. 1999/18.|
|2, 3.||↑||Sciatica, National Health Service. 2015.|
|4.||↑||Sciatica, British Acupuncture Council.|
|5, 6, 8.||↑||Qasim, Seyed Javad Mojtabavi Ali Ismail. “Acupuncture And Sciatica.” Kufa Journal for Nursing Sciences| مجلة الكوفة للعلوم التمريضية 3, no. 3 (2014).|
|7.||↑||Acupuncture – Evidence, National Health Service. 2014.|
|9.||↑||Zhao, Zhi-Qi. “Neural mechanism underlying acupuncture analgesia.” Progress in neurobiology 85, no. 4 (2008): 355-375.|
|10.||↑||Dong, Zhi-Qiang, Fei Ma, Hong Xie, Yan-Qing Wang, and Gen-Cheng Wu. “Down-regulation of GFRα-1 expression by antisense oligodeoxynucleotide attenuates electroacupuncture analgesia on heat hyperalgesia in a rat model of neuropathic pain.” Brain research bulletin 69, no. 1 (2006): 30-36.|
|11.||↑||Inoue, Motohiro, Hiroshi Kitakoji, Tadashi Yano, Naoto Ishizaki, Megumi Itoi, and Yasukazu Katsumi. “Acupuncture treatment for low back pain and lower limb symptoms—the relation between acupuncture or electroacupuncture stimulation and sciatic nerve blood flow.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 5, no. 2 (2008): 133-143.|
|12.||↑||Wang, S., Z. R. Sun, S. Tong, L. L. Shan, and X. L. Zhang. “Effects of acupuncture on monoamine neurotransmitters in brain tissue of experimental rat models of sciatic nerve compression.” (2005).|
|13.||↑||La, Jie-Lian, Samina Jalali, and S. A. Shami. “Morphological studies on crushed sciatic nerve of rabbits with electroacupuncture or diclofenac sodium treatment.” The American journal of Chinese medicine 33, no. 04 (2005): 663-669.|