Acupuncture and the Treatment of Sciatica
Sciatica is a common reason why people visit the acupuncturists office. Sciatica refers to an impingement of the sciatic nerve, which runs from the low back, through the buttocks and down to the legs. It can result from pinching due to a herniated disc, arthritic changes to the vertebrae, or from swelling of a ligament in the area. Patients often describe the pain as burning, tingling, achiness or numbness. Patients may also present with low back pain which occurs before the sciatica or simultaneously. It is quite common for sciatica to recur, especially if there is a familial tendency for sciatica or low back pain. Conventional medicine treats sciatica with physical therapy, pain medication and sometimes surgery.
In Chinese medicine, sciatica results from the improper flow of Qi, or vital energy through the affected area. Treatment is aimed at restoring the proper flow of Qi. This is primarily addressed through acupuncture. Distal points (points away from the affected site), as well as local points, are needled. The most important points are local points on the low back, buttocks and leg that are painful on palpation. These points are where the Qi is most stagnant.
After insertion, the needles are manipulated in order to stimulate the movement of Qi. It is common and a good sign for the needles to elicit a sensation similar to the sciatic pain itself. Sometimes moxa is also employed along with the needles. Moxa is dried Mugwort, an herb that has blood and Qi moving qualities. Moxa can be applied either as a loose powder or in a compressed stick (similar to a cigar). If used in the loose form, it is applied directly to the skin and lit over the affected area. Applied with a stick, moxa is held over the acupuncture needles to warm them.
Most patients who receive acupuncture for the treatment of sciatica will know within three to four treatments whether they will benefit from acupuncture. Some patients experience relief as soon as the first treatment is finished while others may initially feel worse after treatment and then start to feel better in a day or two. Several treatments spaced between 3-5 days apart is best for optimal results. Acupuncture is a safe and useful alternative for treating sciatica.