Back pain from sciatica can cripple your lifestyle in more ways than one and you are not alone. Chronic lower back pain is common in people between the ages of 24 and 39 and even those who are 20 to 59 years of age. However, sciatica usually manifests in individuals who are 40 years of age or older and those who have genetic predispositions to the condition.
If you have both conditions or have sciatica that has led to lower back pain, traditional medical practices and treatments may not be enough to alleviate your pain and discomfort. Acupuncture has been known to alleviate both by relaxing tight muscles, increasing blood circulation and by regulating the nervous system.
What is Sciatica?
Sciatica is a debilitating condition in which the afflicted feel pain or paresthesia in the sciatic nerve. In about 90% of cases, the condition is caused by a herniated disc (i.e. when disc material presses against a nerve root thus compressing delicate nerve tissue which can lead to chronic pain) but tumors and lumbar stenosis are also probable causes. The condition is also known as lumbar radicular pain (LRP) as per how patients understand their diagnosis.
The Sciatic Nerve
To understand how and where sciatic pain originates, we need to go in-depth into the nerve that said pain originates from. The sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the human body and it originates in the lower back. It travels posteriorly through the lower limb and right down to the heel. In doing so it innervates a large part of our skin, the muscles in our thigh, leg and foot.
Form and Location
This critical nerve is responsible for sensory and motor functions of the lower body and allows us to walk, lift weights, run, climb and stand smoothly. A healthy sciatic nerve cannot be palpated or felt easily. It is well protected nestled near the muscles of the buttocks. However, a compromised nerve can become inflamed and emerge from that nestled position which can lead to chronic pain, tingling and weakness in the lower back, buttocks and legs.
The nerve originates from the lower back and goes right down to the foot. It is considered to be a mixed nerve which means that it consists of both motor as well as sensory fibers which allow our lower body to function and feel sensation.
The nerve is a mix of five nerve groups that emerge from the lower lumbar and upper sacral spine i.e. L4, L5 and S1 to S3. All of these nerves are located right near the piriformis muscle and merge to form a thick sciatic nerve.
Some of the common causes of sciatica or lower back pain include the following:
Bulging or herniated disc
Lumbar bulging or a herniated disc is the most common cause of sciatica. Age and time can cause spinal discs to dry out and wear out which can lead to tiny tears. When this happens, supporting ligaments also start to weaken which cause the disc to bulge or slip out of position. A herniated disc can rub against or place pressure on surrounding tissue and structures which includes the sciatic nerve root.
If a small stress fracture in the spine causes a vertebral body to slip forward on another, it leads to spondylolisthesis. If for example the L5 vertebra slips forward over the S1 vertebra, it can pinch nerves which can lead to sciatica.
Acupuncture Benefits for Back Pain and Sciatica
Acupuncture has been used widely in Chinese clinical practices and can be traced back at least 3000 years. The treatment is based on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) which focuses on the flow of vital energy or qi which circulated between our organs along channels called meridians.
The treatment is an established adjuvant modality for treatment for chronic pain as it stimulates inhibitory nerve fibers thus reducing transmission of a pain signal to the brain. When needles are placed on specific acupoints on patient’s body, they activate a number of fibers (Aβ, Aδ and C) which can have an analgesic or pain relieving effect.
The analgesic effect is due to release of beta endorphins that the needles stimulate the body into releasing thus affecting the part of the brain that governs serotonin. When these are released they act as a lock and key for a receptor in the body that helps us reduce our perception of pain. When these endorphins flood our system, they induce feelings of relaxation that can boost our body’s natural healing mechanism. This in turn reduces the sciatic inflammation which can otherwise lead to serious lower back and lower body pain.
To achieve this result, your acupuncturist may use distal acupuncture treatments in which points that are further away from the affected area are needled to signal the body’s natural healing ability to treat that area.
The bottom line is that acupuncture works where traditional medicine may fall short when it comes to treating sciatica and back pain. Your doctor may recommend a treatment plan that involves both treatments to manage your specific condition.
At the American College of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) Main Clinic, we offer treatments that are conducted by trained, experienced and licensed acupuncturists on staff. Book a consultation today by dialing 713-780-9786. The treatment is also available at all ACAOM at Houston Methodist Hospital locations at 713-441-5980. Get in touch with us for a consultation today!