Health and Wellbeing

Acupuncture for Sciatica

Oct 31 2016

In recent years, acupuncture for sciatica has become an increasingly popular treatment option. In this article, we discuss sciatic pain, how acupuncture for sciatica works, and what to expect from treatment.

What is sciatica?

Firstly, let’s agree what we mean by sciatica. Many people know the term, some even fear it, but all too often the term gets misused. Contrary to what many people think, sciatica is best described as a symptom rather than a diagnosis. It refers to the irritation of the sciatic nerve and can occur at any point along the nerve pathway. This means you can experience symptoms at any point between the low back and foot.

What does sciatica feel like?

Sciatica has been described by patients as a sharp, shooting pain. It typically starts from the low back or buttocks and travels down the back of the leg. Patients have also reported symptoms like pins and needles, numbness, and weakness in the leg. It is important to remember that patients do not always report back pain with sciatica. Symptoms can affect the legs and feet in isolation.

Getting sciatica checked out

There are a number of reasons people experience sciatica. It can have a number of underlying causes and it is a good idea to get a thorough assessment. Physiotherapists are the first choice for this as they are trained to spot serious medical issues as well as the more likely causes. A physiotherapist can also get going with treatment quickly, which is ideal for the best recovery. While your GP will also pick up any serious problems, they will be less likely to diagnose more specific issues.

Why get acupuncture for sciatica?

When we talk about acupuncture for sciatica, we are referring specifically to the western medical form. We are also referring to its use by qualified physiotherapists as part of a course of treatment, rather than a stand-alone therapy.

Up until recently, acupuncture was recommended by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) for the treatment of back pain over 6 weeks. While it is not included in the recently updated guidelines, many professionals and patients still advocate it. There is also a large number of studies that report on the benefits of acupuncture for sciatica.

Acupuncture helps promote healing in three main ways:

Local effects

By inserting a needle into the target tissues, we “trick” the body into thinking there is a new injury. Blood flow increases and inflammation occurs. This results in the local healing process starting again.

Spinal effects

According to popular pain theories, the nerves in our bodies are under constant stimulation. The nerves connect with the spinal cord which acts as a “gatekeeper” and decides what sensation will go to the brain. If the spinal cord considers a stimulus not important, it won’t get through.

Pain is an important stimulus and passes the gatekeeper. By interfering with this signal, acupuncture helps ease the pain – signals don’t reach the brain with the same intensity.

Effects in the brain

Acupuncture sends signals to the brain, informing the nervous system that there is an injury. When we have an injury the brain produces endorphins – the body’s natural painkillers. Thus, acupuncture has a pain-relieving effect.

If we have chronic pain, the nerves are more sensitive to stimulation. They produce pain that is disproportionate to the injury. It is not that we are imagining the pain, but rather our brains overreacting to protect the area. By using acupuncture, we can help reset this process.

What to expect with acupuncture treatment?

The main focus of acupuncture for sciatica is to help reduce the pain. The treatment has a cumulative effect and is typically used alongside other treatments. You can usually expect results within 4-6 sessions but this may vary between individuals.

A lot of peoples get a bit concerned by needles. However, acupuncture needles are very thin. There may be a small amount of discomfort at times but a sports massage is far more painful than acupuncture!

Acupuncture can affect blood sugar levels. We encourage patients to eat beforehand and remain hydrated to avoid any post-treatment dizziness.

Article by: Despoina Nazou – Chartered Physiotherapist