Acupuncture For Sciatica: All You Need to Know


This article is evidence-based, verified by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Many people live with sciatica. According to the National Institutes of Health, from 5% to 10% of people with lower back pain have sciatica. This type of pain affects from 1% to up to 10% of the entire population, mostly 25 to 45-year-olds. Simply put, every 4 out of 10 individuals will get some form of sciatica pain. 

The primary line of treatment is physical therapy, while for more severe and reoccurring pain, patients can take anti-inflammatory meds to soothe the symptoms. But, there is one particular problem. Medication such as this is often accompanied by unwanted side effects from stomach pain to kidney problems, and even high blood pressure, the list goes on.

As a result, people have been searching for a much healthier approach that can give them the same benefits, without the dangerous side effects. That’s where acupuncture comes in – the ancient Chinese treatment that has been around for centuries.  

While this alternative treatment can’t completely heal all the structural problems caused by sciatica, it’s a highly effective method that can manage the pain.  

Here, we will analyze all the research and statistical analysis of sciatica and acupuncture, what you can expect from the treatment, and what makes it a beneficial choice for managing the sciatic nerve pain. Keep reading if you want to find out more.  

Safe Sleep Systems is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission, at no additional cost to you. Learn more

How Does Sciatica Affect Quality of Life? 

Sciatica is a term used to describe the symptoms like pain, weakness, numbness, burning or tingling in the leg. Sciatica can be caused by a lumbar herniated disc, degenerative disc disease, lumbar stenosis or spondylolisthesis.

People who suffer from Sciatic pain have a lot to deal with on both a physical and psychological level. But, those with a more severe case, have to overcome a highly disabling and debilitating condition.  

Sciatica is not something to be taken lightly. According to Brian J. Neuman, M.D., from the Johns Hopkins Medicine team, it can become so painful it will start to affect your daily life. Sciatica can be so hard; people won’t be able to complete their daily chores. All the discomfort can make even the simplest tasks daunting. It can be hard to sit, drive, sleep, let alone exercise.  

The reason for that is relatively simple. The sciatic nerve is the longest in our body. If anything affects that nerve, we will start to feel crippling pain from the back to the foot. The pain can even begin from the thighs and continue to the buttocks, ankles, calves, and knees. 

Aside from the pain, people can feel a very uncomfortable burning sensation, accompanied by pins, tingling, needles, or numbness.  

Why Acupuncture? 

acupuncture model

According to the National Institutes of Health, acupuncture is a lot more effective in reducing pain intensity than conventional Western medicine.  

As a standalone treatment, it has a total success rate of 81.6%, for soothing the sciatic pain and restoring the proper functions in the body. However, when paired with herbal medication, the effect rate can go as high as 95%, stated the Healthcare Medicine Institute back in 2015. Compared to the 73.33% effective rate from Western medicine, the difference is astounding.   

Is Acupuncture Safe for All Sciatica Patients? 

Due to the high interest in acupuncture for treating different conditions and health problems, many researchers have studied the effect of this treatment.  

According to one particular statistical analysis issued in BMJ Journals, acupuncture is a well-tolerated and safe treatment for soothing all forms of pain, including sciatica. While there is plenty of research on how the treatment impacts pain, studies on the sciatic nerves are limited. 

The National Institutes of Health support this theory in their meta-analysis. The 3000-year-old treatment is a highly effective method for managing pain, particularly sciatica pain. It has a high therapeutic value that Western medicine can hardly match.   

Even though the treatment uses needles, it’s a non-invasive technique that relies on gentle and safe therapy. It doesn’t damage the nerves if appropriately performed. It only relaxes the muscles, boosts blood flow, and restores the normal sciatic functions.  

How Does Acupuncture Work for Sciatica? 

Acupuncture works physiologically. When the tiny needles are inserted into particular spots in the body, they naturally trigger the essential points of the peripheral nervous system. This type of action from the nervous system prompts the brain to: 

  • Help the muscles relax the targeted area 
  • Speed up the flow of blood to the affected spot 
  • Release enkephalins and endorphins (painkillers that naturally occur in the human system) 

These benefits can be felt the moment the needles are inserted. This type of treatment works under the concept of “Qi” energy, which represents the natural flow of energy in the human body. When certain spots have been blocked, and no energy gets to them, they can malfunction, later resulting in pain, discomfort, or disease.  

The treatment is meant to stabilize the flow of Qi in the human body to unblock all the “meridians” (sources of energy) and heal the pain. Let’s take a look at the following diagram.  

The sciatic nerve extends from the lower back to the buttocks, hips, and down both legs. Each section has its own set of meridians. The diagram features all the acupuncture points on the upper body, just above the lower back, to the legs and feet. These are all sections that the sciatic pain can influence.  

An experienced acupuncturist will have to activate these meridians and unblock the flow of Qi. Only then, the blood flow can be restored to help manage the pain.  

By unblocking these meridians, the circulation of blood reduces muscle tension, stimulating the body to produce dopamine and serotonin naturally (the hormones of happiness and joy). With the constant release of the “happy” hormones and pain management techniques, the body can resume its natural healing and restore the sciatic nerve to its normal functions.

Does Sciatica Respond to Acupuncture? 

The primary step to treating sciatica pain is diagnosing where it’s coming from. Various diagnoses may require a different set of treatments. Depending on the intensity, severity, and cause of the pain, there could be multiple approaches to manage the condition.  

For severe pain, a unique technique can be used to inhibit the nerve causing the pain. The needle could be added much further from the affected area to stimulate or prompt a different nerve to help with the discomfort. Other needles will then be inserted along the same line to prompt the nerves to stimulate blood flow to the spine.  

In theory, acupuncture removes any disruptions to the flow of energy. These disruptions are the ones causing the disorder. For a radiating pain, such as this one, this is a very effective method. The nerves can transfer the impact of the treatment through the entire sciatic nerve and help soothe the pain.  

How Many Acupuncture Treatments Are Needed for Sciatica? 

Kirsty, a 25-year-old graphic designer, has been suffering from Sciatica since the age of 19. She has previously been prescribed pain-killers and anti-inflammatory drugs by a GP but neither provided long-term management of her pain. Her video diary follows her six sessions of acupuncture with physiotherapy.

It depends from person to person. For some people, moderate sciatica can respond well after a single treatment, but for others, it can take much more than that.  

Chronic sciatica can take from 8 to 12 treatments, depending on how severe the problem is, for example, if the patient has stenosis or disc herniation. In acute cases, relief can be noticed after 2 to 3 treatments.  

Herbal medicine can help speed up the body’s natural healing process. They are natural healing alternatives in the form of extracts, teas, powders, etc. that can stimulate the immune system and speed up recovery. 

Are There Side Effects With Acupuncture? 

According to the Harvard Medical School, if the treatment is performed by a trained and licensed professional, it’s deemed safe. Out of the millions of people treated with acupuncture, the number of side effects registered is meager.  

The FDA highly regulates and restricts the use of acupuncture to allow only experienced practitioners to work with the technique. But, in some cases, patients can experience: 

  • Sore muscles 
  • Bleeding 
  • Infection from an unsterilized needle 
  • Nerve damage 
  • Pain after treatments 
  • Organ injury 

The sections of the body where the needles are inserted can feel sore after treatment. However, the soreness is expected to decrease and eventually disappear in the next 24h.  

In sporadic cases, especially when a patient has been treated by a less experienced acupuncturist, the body can develop bruises. The bruises may be painful depending on how sensitive the skin is, but in a couple of days, the injuries will disappear on their own.  

After every treatment, the sciatica symptoms may appear worse. Patients may experience pain that gradually increases in intensity. According to the British Acupuncture Council, sometimes the symptoms will get worse before you start to see an improvement. The pain will increase before it can gradually dissipate; this is a typical pattern in acupuncture treatment.  

The treatment has to work on the outside of the body first before it can start to manage the pain. Another possibility you might be experiencing pain is because your skin is incredibly sensitive and can’t handle the treatment. Or, some nerves have been damaged and need time to heal.  

If you experience any pain after treatment is best to consult your acupuncturist or doctor. Book a doctor’s appointment if the pain persists after treatment and doesn’t subside on its own. There is a possibility an organ has been injured, or the nerve damage is more severe than expected.  

Who Is NOT Fit for Acupuncture? 

Despite it being a highly popular alternative treatment, not everyone can rely on acupuncture to treat sciatica pain. Specific individuals can’t handle the procedure. Here is a list of the following individuals not fit for acupuncture: 

  • Anyone who takes blood thinners 
  • People with a bleeding disorder 
  • Individuals who use pacemakers (or any other similar device) 

In cases such as these, it’s crucial to steer clear of the treatment since it can do more harm than good. If you don’t fit into this category, then you can try acupuncture.  

Handy Lifestyle Modifications for Reducing Sciatic Pain 

In this video, a physiotherapist demonstrates gentle exercises for spinal stenosis, a form of sciatica. This video is part of a series of exercises for sciatica. Find out how to prevent sciatica: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sciatica/

Acupuncture is an excellent way of managing sciatic pain, but this type of health problem also reacts well to self-care. Flare-ups are frequent for anyone with this type of health issue.  Sometimes these flare-ups can last too long or get progressively worse.  

You can implement a couple of lifestyle modifications if you want to prevent any flare-ups of sciatic pain from catching you by surprise. Here are some of the most useful changes you can add to your daily routine: 

  • Regular physical activity to strengthen the back 
  • Maintaining proper posture, particularly when sitting 
  • Avoiding to bend over to lift anything substantial, use squats instead  
  • Eat healthily 
  • Wear supportive clothing, shoes, for example, to ease the pressure on the legs 

Each of these modifications has a significant role to play. They may seem banal at first but are here for a reason.  

Regular physical activity makes the back more durable, therefore, less prone to sciatic flare-ups. Keeping up a proper posture can also be extremely beneficial since you won’t be putting any pressure on the sciatic nerve. The same thing applies to the way you bend over to lift something or the clothes you wear.  

Conclusion 

Countless people underestimate the effects of acupuncture on sciatic pain. Even though it can’t heal all the sciatic structural problems, this ancient Chinese practice can be immensely beneficial for reducing the pain and discomfort.  

Plenty of research can support its potential, but more studies are necessary to figure out the full effect and extent of acupuncture on sciatic pain. So far, however, the results are promising. 

Click here to read about how acupuncture can help people with autism spectrum disorder

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed, MD, holds a baccalaureate of Medicine and Surgery. An avid contributor to the Huffington Post and Chicago Tribune, Dr. Zayed believes in providing accurate and accessible information to general readers. With years of writing and editing content in the medical niche, Dr. Zayed likes to think of himself as a man with a mission, keeping the internet free of false medical information.

References 

Team SafeSleep

Hi! We're a team of scientists, doctors, teachers, and coaches experienced in helping people with special needs. We hope you like our research and share it with others who might find it helpful too :)

Recent Posts