The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in your body, running from the spinal cord to the buttock and hip area and down the back of each leg, and about the size of your little finger. Sciatica is a condition where the sciatic nerve is irritated. The most telltale symptom of sciatica is pain that radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve- from the lumbar area to the buttock and down the back of the leg. The pain can be anywhere from a mild ache to a severe sharp or burning pain, numbness or weak muscles along the nerve pathway, and tingling or pins and needles feeling in the toes or foot.
The irritation of the sciatic nerve can be the result of pressure from muscles that are too tense or too short, a bulging disc in the lumbar vertebral column that pushes on the nerve, an inflammation of the nerve, or bad posture or heavy work that involves a lot of lifting and bending over. The pain can be severe and often gets worse while sitting too long, driving, bending over and lifting heavy objects. Sciatica is a widespread injury and about 40% of us will eventually be affected by it in some form. Sciatic pain will sometimes be the sign of a herniated disc and it is certainly wise to pay attention to it in an early stage and get expert advice.
In Western medicine sciatica can be treated by many different health care professionals. The massage therapist will loosen the tension in the muscles of the back and leg, in order to relieve the sciatic nerve, the physiotherapist will give exercises to improve posture and stretch muscles and can apply ultrasound or interferential current. The chiropractor will align the spine in order to relieve pressure on the nerve. The doctor can prescribe painkillers or anti-inflammatories and the surgeon can do surgery to remove the bulging of the disc or contributing problem.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), sciatica is considered to be a lower back problem, an area that is strongly influenced by the bladder and kidney channels. Sciatica can be differentiated into different types, depending on the exact cause. Damp-cold invading the back channels can occur in both acute and chronic cases, causing a dull, heavy, radiating pain that may be worse with cold or dampness. Sciatica due to stagnation of qi-energy and blood in the back area can cause either an acute or chronic condition that is aggravated with the absence of movement. Sciatica due to kidney deficiency will result in a chronic condition because of the fact that weak kidneys are unable to properly nourish the lower back area, making it susceptible to injury and dysfunction. This type of sciatica has a slow, gradual onset and typically will get worse in the evening and with fatigue.
Acupuncture can be extremely effective in the treatment of both acute and chronic back pain, including sciatica, regardless of how long the condition has been present. Sciatica often takes longer to treat than other types of back pain, but acupuncture can produce great results, both in treating the pain and in addressing the underlying weakness that is contributing to a sciatic problem.
Often in cases where there is a stubborn problem that doesn’t seem to respond to treatment, acupuncture can remove the blockages and open the doors for healing. Combined with exercises and postural advice, is a very valuable tool in treating sciatica.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, Kelowna, BC.