Sciatica is a common complaint among Americans — with around 40% of Americans experiencing it during their lifetime. Pain caused by sciatica radiates across the legs, affecting how people carry out their daily tasks. While most instances of sciatica improve on their own, some people will need intervention to achieve long-term relief. A popular non-surgical treatment is acupuncture, which involves the strategic placement of needles on target areas.
So how does acupuncture for sciatica work? Needles will target the tissues surrounding the pinched sciatic nerve. These areas are the source of pain and numbness, and the needles will help improve blood circulation and stimulate neurotransmitter release.
Sciatica is a condition that can be treated through acupuncture sessions. Like in other conditions where acupuncture is used for treatment, the needles are inserted directly into pressure points. By triggering the release of endorphins, the body’s pain levels will decrease. For sciatic pain, acupuncture needles are placed along the inside of the lower calf or ankle.
There’s no singular culprit for sciatica. However, your lifestyle and daily habits can increase the risk of developing sciatica. Older patients commonly develop sciatica due to the natural wear and tear of bone tissue and discs. Pressure from the spine causes bulging around the disc of the vertebrae, pressing directly onto the sciatic nerve.
Other causes and risk factors for sciatica include:
Overweight or obese patients also have a higher chance of developing sciatic pain. Weight carried in front of the body has to be supported by the spine and back muscles. If you’re overweight, your back muscles also have to double their support. This causes pressure around the area, leading to strains and pains.
Construction and manufacturing jobs require heavy lifting, which increases the risk of lower back problems. It helps to take a break for a few minutes every hour to allow your muscles to rest. Similarly, desk jobs that force you to sit down for hours will wear down your muscles and cause pinching around the sciatic nerve. It’s also important to walk around every hour or so during work days. If working from home, you can invest in an ergonomic chair that allows you to have proper back support.
Those living a sedentary lifestyle also tend to have weaker core muscles — those around the back and abdomen. If you don’t have a strong core, you’ll have weaker lower back support. Additionally, people with poor posture can be prone to sciatica. If you’re active at the gym, having improper form during strength training often leads to pain around the legs.
Additionally, having a previous lower back or spinal injury may cause long-term damage to the lumbar spine and sciatic nerve. Chronic conditions like diabetes also increase the risk of developing nerve damage. If you have any underlying medical conditions, ask your doctor about running tests to check for nerve or muscle damage in the lower back.
The most common symptom associated with sciatica is leg pain. The pain ranges from moderate to severe, usually in the lower back, buttock, or leg. In some cases, the pain radiates throughout the leg and may reach the foot. Basic movements, such as standing, sitting, and walking, may worsen the pain.
Many patients also experience a “pins and needles” sensation around the lower extremities. This is a sign of a pinched nerve around the legs. It’s a common sensation that usually subsides in a few minutes. But if you frequently experience pins and needles, you may ask your doctor to check for nerve compression around the area.
In rare cases, sciatica can lead to loss of control during urination and bowel movements. This is caused by extensive damage around the lumbar and sacral nerve roots from herniated discs. Decompression surgery may be necessary to reverse this condition.
Acupuncture for sciatica aims to change the body’s long-term pain response. Acupuncturists will insert the needles directly into pressure points around the back. The needles are very small, around 0.5 to 2.5 inches. Although their points are blunt, they’re painless when inserted into the back. The needles will stimulate the nervous system by releasing endorphins to minimize the pain felt around the body.
Depending on the acupuncturist, they may target different pressure points for maximum effect. The most common locations are the inner lower calf, ankle, and wrist areas. These correspond to sciatica reflexology points originating from Chinese medicine.
The needling used in acupuncture for sciatica is called distal needling, which means that not all points of insertion are close to the sciatic nerve. They may be in different locations that correspond to the flow of qi in the painful parts of the body. Distal needling also promotes blood circulation around the lower back muscles to help with sciatic nerve pain.
Before you begin an acupuncture session, make sure that the provider is a licensed and credible institution. You can check their website for reviews and testimonials from clients. There should also be a hotline that you can contact for any questions before booking an appointment.
A credible acupuncturist will explain how the needles reduce inflammation around the back. Stimulation of the nerves will lead directly to endorphin release, but they also change how the brain and spinal cord processes pain signals. The increase in serotonin and noradrenaline also aid in nerve repair.
Your acupuncturist should also talk to you about home acupressure, which can help maximize the effects of the procedure at home. They may provide you with a reflexology map to help identify points where you can use your finger to apply pressure without needles.
Acupuncture isn’t the only treatment option you have for sciatica. In fact, it might help you to combine different non-surgical methods to get maximum long-term relief. Acupuncture primarily targets the pressure points for pain, but might not address damage to surrounding muscles around the sciatic nerve.
Physical therapy is one of the most popular treatment options for long-term pain relief. Physical therapists will create a customized treatment plan to address your injuries. These include exercises that target the lower back, pelvis, and thighs. Over the course of your treatment, you should notice the pain starting to subside during daily movements.
Therapists may combine gentle core exercises with conditioning and a modified ergonomic program. You may be given hot and cold packs to decrease inflammation. Your therapist may also ask you to modify your work routines to ensure that you take hourly breaks from prolonged sitting or standing.
There may also be a need for manual therapy, such as direct spinal manipulation and soft tissue massages. These will be administered at the treatment center, alongside in-person exercises and patient education sessions. At home, you’ll be asked to continue treatment through self-management techniques and lifestyle changes.
Steroid injections help minimize the presence of inflammatory chemicals. This leads to decreased sensitivity in the pain nerve fibers. Epidural steroid injections also help improve mobility and function, allowing you to return to daily activities without pain. These injections also act as a replacement for over-the-counter drugs, which may have long-term effects on the liver.
It’s important to know that epidural steroid injections may not work for all cases of sciatica. However, lumbar injections are known for their positive outcomes in reducing sciatica cases that have recently erupted. It’s most effective for people whose nerve root compression is still minimal.
Many patients will need multiple cycles of injection. Repeat injections depend on the body’s response to previous treatments. Provided that no adverse reactions occurred, your doctor may prescribe more injections.
Even if you have a successful first injection, it’s likely that sciatica could return. That’s why doctors ask patients to combine the injections with other treatments — such as physical therapy and acupuncture. Most physical therapy programs can be tweaked according to your needs and medical history. Your doctor may also work with your physical therapist to create a multidisciplinary approach to your recovery.
It’s important to have a treatment plan that caters to your needs as a patient. There’s no one size fits all approach to sciatica relief, and you may benefit from exploring different options. Acupuncture is effective for pain relief, but you’ll also need to prioritize long-term efforts to get rid of sciatica completely.
At The Spine and Rehab Group, we offer a wide range of treatments that help patients live their lives without worrying about pain. Our licensed therapists and doctors combine acupuncture, physical therapy, and medicine to ensure the satisfaction of all our clients. We get consistent 5-star ratings on Google, and we’ve also been recognized as one of Castle Connolly’s Top Doctors. Feel free to browse our website or contact us at 833-847-7463.