Sciatica is a painful problem that will affect many people at some point in their lives. Although it usually lasts for just a few weeks, sciatica can be extremely debilitating and interfere with your ability to work and carry out everyday activities.
You can speed up your recovery from sciatica is by staying active, doing regular sciatica exercises, and using therapies such as Chinese medicine and acupuncture.
In this article, we will discuss sciatica from a Chinese medicine perspective, and take a look at how this ancient healing art could help.
What is Sciatica?
Sciatica is a term used to describe irritation of the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the thickest and longest nerve in the body. It runs from the lower spine, all the way down the legs to the feet and toes.
Sciatica is often confused with lower back pain. Lower right side or lower left back pain can both be associated with sciatica, but if the pain is restricted to the back it probably has a different cause. Because sciatica affects the entire sciatic nerve, it causes symptoms in the buttocks, legs, and feet too.
Sciatica is really a symptom itself and is usually a sign of a problem in the lower back. Sciatica can cause pain and discomfort in any part of the sciatic nerve. This includes:
- The hips
- The buttocks
- The legs
- The feet and toes
The most common sciatica symptom is pain which can be either stabbing, shooting, or burning in nature. You may also experience other sciatica symptoms including:
Since sciatica usually stems from a problem with the spinal column, it is often accompanied by lower right or lower left back pain.
Sciatica Causes: A Western Viewpoint
In western medicine terms, sciatica is neurological problem which arises from irritation of the sciatic nerve. This is usually due to a problem in the lower back, and some of the most common sciatica causes include:
- A prolapsed disc
- Spinal injury
- Spinal stenosis
- Cauda equina syndrome
A prolapsed disc occurs when one of the discs that cushion your spine becomes swollen or bulges out of place, putting pressure on the sciatic nerve.
Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal column, and spondylolisthesis is a condition which causes the vertebrae to move about more than they should. Like a prolapsed disc, both of these conditions put extra pressure on the sciatic nerve and can lead to various sciatica symptoms.
Cauda equina syndrome is a rare but dangerous condition, and requires medical attention as soon as possible. It can cause sciatica in one or both legs, and may be accompanied by other symptoms such as loss of bladder and bowel control. If you experience these symptoms, contact your physician immediately.
Treatment for Sciatica Pain Relief
Conventional treatments for sciatica usually include medication such as anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers. If these are ineffective and your sciatica symptoms last for more than a few weeks, you may be referred for physical therapy.
Physical therapy may involve passive and active stretches for lower back pain and other specific exercises for sciatica. Passive stretches are carried out by a therapist, whereas active stretches are done by the patient and can be practiced at home between appointments.
If you have a problem with your spine such as a prolapsed disc or spinal stenosis, you may need surgery to get your symptoms under control. You can talk about the benefits and risks of surgery with your physician.
If you would prefer a natural treatment for sciatica, one of the best options is acupuncture. This ancient, Chinese therapy uses fine needles inserted at specific points on the body to relieve pain and various other symptoms.
Let’s take a look at sciatica from a Chinese medicine perspective and explore how acupuncture can help.
Sciatica Causes: An Eastern Viewpoint
In TCM, any painful condition is seen as a result of qi and blood stagnation. Qi and blood are two of the most important substances in the body, and are responsible for keeping the organs, muscles, and other tissues healthy.
In order to perform their functions properly, qi and blood need to be able to circulate effectively and reach every part of the body with ease. When something blocks their path, qi and blood can begin to accumulate in one area, causing inflammation and pain. The blockage could be caused by an injury, overuse, or even emotional stress. But no matter the cause of the stagnation, the symptoms are always the same.
In sciatica, it is usually one of two acupuncture channels which is affected by this stagnation. The Gallbladder channel runs through the hip and down the outside of the leg to the fourth toe. If your sciatica symptoms are in any of these areas, it is likely to be due to a blockage in the Gallbladder channel.
The Bladder channel runs through the buttock and down the back of the leg to the little toe. If your sciatica symptoms are here, it is likely to a be due to a blockage in the Bladder channel.
Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture for Sciatica Pain Relief
Since TCM views sciatica as a blockage in the Gallbladder or Bladder channel, the primary aim of treatment is to remove the blockage and restore the smooth flow of qi and blood. This can be done by using points located on the appropriate channel. Your provider may choose points in the painful area and/or points elsewhere on the body.
From a western perspective, acupuncture for sciatica works by relieving pain and inflammation in the local area. Acupuncture can affect your nervous system to change the way you experience pain and trigger your body to release endorphins, its own natural analgesics.
Other acupuncture benefits include improving blood circulation, relaxing the muscles, and relieving stress. This means that it can help to relieve a wide range of other problems which may exist alongside sciatica symptoms.
Other TCM treatments for sciatica include herbal medicine which can be used to improve qi and blood circulation, cupping, and acupressure massage. Your provider may recommend sciatica exercises for you to do at home, or other lifestyle changes which may help with your symptoms.
Lifestyle Changes for Sciatica Pain Relief
As well as trying therapies such as Chinese medicine and acupuncture, there are also a number of lifestyle changes which can help with sciatica pain and make your symptoms easier to bear.
Firstly, it is important that you stay active. Regular, gentle exercise such as walking is a great place to start and this can be combined with specific stretches for lower back pain and sciatica. Avoid the temptation to sit or lie for long periods of time as this can put extra pressure on your sciatic nerve and make your sciatica worse.
Pay attention to your posture and be especially careful lifting heavy objects. If you are overweight, you may find that losing weight helps to prevent sciatica flare ups and back pain.
Some people find that painkillers provide some sciatica pain relief, but if you need a little extra help, try using a heat pack applied to the lower back, buttock, or hip. Be careful with heat packs if you are suffering from any numbness as you could burn your skin without realizing. You can reduce the risk of this happening by using a commercial heat pack or wrapping a hot water bottle in a towel to protect your skin.
Finally, try using relaxation techniques to help you cope with sciatica pain. Many people find meditation or mindfulness helpful, while others turn to talking therapies such as CBT. What works for one person will not necessarily be right for another, but these therapies have a wealth of benefits for your mental health, and are certainly worth a try!