Does acupuncture help with sciatica? Today, I want to take a look at an alternative method for treating sciatic nerve pain that does not involve painkillers or surgery. If you are curious about acupuncture and its effectiveness in dealing with sciatica, please keep reading.
If you have experience with sciatica, you probably know the pain can range from annoying to debilitating. I have been dealing with sciatic nerve pain for about 20 years. At times the pain has literally brought me to my knees, other times it can be just a twinge.
What is sciatica?
Before we get too far, let’s define what sciatica is.
The sciatic nerve is the longest and largest nerve in our body. This nerve runs on both sides of the body, from the lower spine, through your butt, down your legs all the way into your feet. Parts of the nerve branch off into different parts of your leg.
This nerve is critical because it connects the spinal cord with muscles in the legs and feet . When the nerve is compressed, pain can radiate along the nerve path, this is called sciatica.
The term sciatica is not an actual diagnosis, but a symptom of a more significant problem. The diagnosis comes in the form of an issue like a herniated disc, or bulging disc, which compresses the nerve, causing pain.
What causes sciatica?
At a basic level, our spines are made up of vertebrae (bones) and discs that separate the bony vertebrae. These discs are made up of a hard outer shell and a gel-like interior. They act as shock absorbers between the vertebrae.
Several conditions can cause sciatic nerve pain including:
- Degenerative disc disease – when the discs between the vertebrae breakdown over time
- Lumbar stenosis – which is the narrowing of the spinal canal
- Herniated disc – The disc between the vertebrae is compromised and the gel-like substance inside leaks out, contacting the sciatic nerve.
- Bulging disc – The disc space is still intact, but weakened and bulges out where it is weak and compresses the nerve.
The terms herniated disc, bulging disc, pinched nerve are often used interchangeably, basically describing when there is an issue with a disc, allowing compression of the sciatic nerve.
People who might experience sciatica
Of course, this is not an all-inclusive list, but some folks who may experience sciatica are:
- People who drive a lot, truck drivers, delivery drivers
- Infrequent lifters, meaning people who don’t lift a lot, but may have picked something up incorrectly, or lifted something too heavy
- Folks who work in a cubicle and sit a lot during the day
- People with lower back injuries (like me)
What does sciatic nerve pain feel like?
For me, sciatica shoots down my right leg. I can usually feel the sharp tingling pain in my thigh and have even had episodes where it shoots into my calf, and even my toes. The sensation is actually kind of like an electrical shock radiating down my leg. The pain is usually sharp, not a dull achy pain.
The location of the pain is determined by where the nerve is being compressed.
Words used to describe sciatica are often:
You may even experience weakness or difficulty moving your leg or foot…I have definitely been there.
During a dark time in my life, I had a bout with sciatica that lasted for 16 months. At times I didn’t know how I was going to get through each day, needless to say, that was a low point for me. My 45-minute drive to work was difficult. Walking from the parking lot to my desk was extremely difficult.
What is acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a process of inserting small needles into specific areas of your body (acupuncture points), which triggers a response from the nervous system. The reaction leads to the release of endorphins (our body’s natural painkiller), increased blood flow to the painful area, and it helps to relax the surrounding muscles .
Acupuncture cannot heal any structural problems that cause back pain, like the herniated disc example I mentioned earlier, it can be used to manage pain.
Does acupuncture help sciatica?
This meta-analysis (a statistical analysis that combines multiple scientific studies ) looked at 122 relevant studies to see how effective they were in treating sciatica. The research revealed that patients who received acupuncture showed significant improvement.
The conclusion here is that acupuncture can provide value, especially when it’s used in conjunction with other methods of managing pain.
Another study took two different acupuncture methods and compared how they treated sciatic nerve pain. Both methods called for using needles in the glutes (butt muscles). One technique used 1-2 needles in the glutes only, and the other used multiple needles in various other points on the body, as well as the needles in the glutes.
So, one method, just 1-2 needles in the butt, the other way used 1-2 needles in the glutes AND needles at various other points on the body. Both methods were successful, but surprisingly the first one, with just 1-2 needles in the glutes was slightly better at providing pain relief.
What to expect
You can expect to get poked with needles!
Okay, all kidding aside, your acupuncture specialist should get a thorough history of your condition so they can understand the root cause of your sciatica. The acupuncturist may have you perform some range of motion tests, and have you describe “when does it hurt” type of scenarios.
You will want to give as much information as possible so you can be treated appropriately and get the best results possible.
My experience with acupuncture
I recently had some acupuncture treatment, and I have to say I was a little nervous, to begin with. Not that I am terribly afraid of needles, but come on, who really likes needles.
So, I was pretty surprised that I really didn’t feel much of anything when the doctor inserted the needles. Yes, the needles went in my glutes.
My biggest surprise was how much my muscles spasmed. The needles pretty much immediately caused my glutes to twitch, and that was a strange feeling.
The doctor told me how tight my glute medius was especially. This is due to years of my body being in protective mode since I have dealt with back pain for many years. My muscles were basically guarding to protect and prevent further injury.
It did take a few sessions for my muscles to loosen up, that was in addition to me doing some work with a tennis ball at home. So the combination of acupuncture and rolling on a tennis ball really helped to loosen up my glutes. This turns out to have been a problem area that I wasn’t really even aware of.
Conclusion: Does acupuncture help with sciatica?
As with so many treatment options for sciatica, there is no silver bullet, one size fits all fix for it. Basically what you are trying to do is find a treatment method that will help you with pain relief. Everyone is different and will respond differently to treatment.
My experience with acupuncture was very positive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for everyone.
I have tried just about everything out there, chiropractors, surgery, injections, ibuprofen (lots of ibuprofen) and I think acupuncture is definitely worth a try. I also use my inversion table just about everyday and workout.
I would love to find out more about your experience and get your thoughts on acupuncture.
Have you tried acupuncture? Are you considering acupuncture?
I appreciate you taking the time to stop by today. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments. Feel free to contact me directly as well.