This article will be addressing sciatica, a common condition that can cause extreme pain and greatly reduce quality of life. We will discuss the causes, as well as the benefits of acupuncture for sciatica. Although a relatively common condition, the conventional treatment methods of surgery and medication can be intimidating, expensive, and may cause further problems. Due to the risks and costs, we firmly believe in a well rounded, holistic approach. This approach includes numerous modalities that can relieve your pain.
Having treated many patients with sciatica I can say that I have definitely seen desperation with this condition. Therefore before we get any further I would like to reassure anyone suffering from sciatica that you can get better! You won’t always have to live in pain and relief is possible. With consistency and a logical treatment plan you can and WILL get better. Now let’s start to understand how the pain originates.
What is Sciatica?
Sciatic pain radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve. The pain varies but is often described as sharp, burning, tingling, numbness, or weakness. The nerve branches from the lower back through the hips and buttocks and most commonly down one leg.
Now, let’s take a look at the nerve root and path of the nerve. The sciatic nerve is formed by the nerves of the lumbar and sacral spine from L4-S3. So with that basic understanding of the nerve route and path we can begin to understand the root (apologize for the pun) of the problem. Now that we have addressed the most basic part of the anatomy we can move on to causes of disfunction in the nerve.
What is causing the pain?
There are numerous causes of sciatica symptoms, so in order to keep it simple we will focus on three. The line gets blurry here sometimes when self diagnosing sciatica. For example there are very similar symptoms for sciatica and piriformis syndrome, so for ease we will discuss them as one problem. The following three causes were chosen because they are common and greatly benefit from acupuncture, which is why they are the focus of our article. The common causes of sciatica are:
- Disc protrusion/Spinal Stenosis
- Piriformis syndrome
- Hip misalignment
Disc problems causing Sciatica
Discs between the spinal vertebra act as shock absorbers for the spine. As you can see in the first image they sit between the vertebral segments and, when healthy, keep the disc spaces constant. The nerve roots exit on the posterior (back) side of the spinal segments. Most disc protrusions occur posterior (coming out of the spine toward your back). Narrowing of the intervertebral space, called spinal stenosis, can occur from several sources such as trauma, posture, extra body weight, and others.
Now with stenosis and/or disc protrusion comes the possibility of nerve impingement (and occasionally bone overgrowth or tumor, but that is beyond the scope of this article). The next image displays two different views of how the disc could cause nerve pain as well as the referred pain area. There is also potential that either a repeated hip imbalance or poor posture could cause the narrowing of the intervertebral space. These other causes will be discussed in more detail later with some suggestions of adjunct treatments that can aid in this area.
Here is a good time to insert some clinical acupuncture experience notes. Having treated low back pain/sciatica very often, I have found tight para-spinal muscles prevalent in most causes. Therefore treatments often include Huato points (local points close to the spine). The ability to address these precise points along the spine is a contributing factor to the benefits of acupuncture for sciatica. If you’re not an acupuncturist, don’t worry about that last part, your only responsibility is to lie still and enjoy a relaxing treatment. For any acupuncturist looking to read an interesting article from the TCM perspective here is a good one from Health CMI.
With piriformis syndrome, buttock and hip pain is typically felt more commonly than low back pain, whereas with sciatica, the leg pain is usually greater than low back pain. In some cases the pain may radiate all the way into the toes. The affected leg may feel heavy as well. In some people there is a variation of the route of the sciatic nerve where it runs through the pirifomis muscle. Pirifomis problems often occur from vigorous exercise, long bouts of sitting, poor posture or sports injury. There are many good stretches and postural corrective exercises that can help relieve the stress on the piriformis. We will be releasing a video in the near future detailing some of the best stretches so be sure to check back for that.
Hips are the stable platform around which your machine is running. Holistic medicine sees the body as one whole unit and this includes our method of movement. Problems often arise in the hips from posture, weight distribution, injury or compensation. Patients often believe their pains are caused by localized problems and forget to look at the whole picture. Misaligned hips can cause various symptoms such as low back pain/sciatica, neck pain, elevated shoulder, knee pain, and many more. The sacrum or tailbone is the base of the spine and sets the platform where the lower lumbar vertebrae rest. Therefore if there is hip elevation on one side, or anterior/posterior tilt you are creating an unstable platform for the base of your spine.
Hip imbalance has many treatments and is definitely not a quick fix problem. The bones by themselves DO NOT move. Muscles attach to bones and move them. So in order to address these misalignment issues, a multifaceted approach and patience will be necessary. You have worked your whole life to get to your current state. It will take competent healthcare professionals with a solid plan and especially your willingness to do the work to get better.
Treatments and benefits of Acupuncture for Sciatica
Treatment plans for for sciatica are no easy task and require commitment. From an acupuncture or TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) standpoint we have many tools to address the problem. A basic breakdown of the mechanism of recovery from acupuncture treatments looks somewhat like this. A localized treatment (where the pain is) will relax muscles, cause an anti-inflammatory response from the body, and move any stagnant Qi (energy) and/or blood. This will be in the low back, hip, and buttock area. Channel theory will use distal acupuncture points to move the qi and blood in the channels. This helps pull the excess away from the affected areas. Cupping can relax the local muscles and bring fresh blood flow to the affected area. Electrical stimulation (e-stim) may be used to further relax muscles. Occasionally e-stim will be used to activate muscles that, due to compensation or injury, are not performing optimally.
Additional Treatment Options
Through these various treatment options in TCM we can achieve a huge reduction in severity of symptoms as well as address the root causes. Acupuncture for sciatica is highly effective and can bring relief in most cases. Surgical options can be daunting for many people. Also ultimately do not come without possibility of negative outcomes or side effects. A logical well rounded treatment plan will get you out of pain more quickly. Additional treatments such as massage and chiropractic can be extremely beneficial as well. These two adjunct treatments can expedite the progress and recovery. Chiropractic care aides in maintaining proper alignment of hips and spinal segments to facilitate healing. Massage therapy will relax tight muscles such as low back, glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, and IT bands which will benefit the low back as well. These treatments done in conjunction with acupuncture for sciatica will garner remarkable results.
Thank you for visiting our site. We really hope this article helps you understand sciatica and know that you can get better!
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