We see many people with lower back pain and sciatica at Village Remedies in our Balmain and Sydney CBD clinics. For some it may be an acute episode of lower back pain that brings them in, while others can be suffering from sciatica for years with little to no relief. In this article we’ll look at sciatica and acupuncture treatment for lower back pain.
What Is Sciatica?
Sciatica is not a condition itself, rather it is the name of a symptom that can be caused by issues in the lower back and pelvic region. It is where the sciatic nerve (with roots between L4 to S3) is in some way compressed, impinged or irritated, producing any combination of sharp electric-type pains, dull aching pains, tingling, numbness and/or weakness anywhere between the buttock and foot. Usually this occurs only on one side and most of the time will improve within 4-6 weeks from the onset of pain.
Often imaging will be ordered to check for any structural impingement of a nerve root in the lower back, however, the current evidence does not support imaging unless the symptoms are severe (affecting motor control, signs of infection, weight loss, etc) or fail to respond to conservative treatment within 4-6 weeks. This is because imaging can give a lot of false positives due to the fact that degenerative changes of the spine are very common in non-symptomatic individuals and are associated with the normal aging process.
Typically conservative treatment includes pain relief (prescription and/or over the counter), rest and physical therapy. In addition to this, acupuncture may be a very useful addition to conservative treatment for pain relief and recovery.
Acupuncture For Lower Back Pain & Sciatica
In a 2015 review of research for lower back pain and sciatica, it was suggested that acupuncture may be more effective than standalone pain relief medication and may actually increase relief when combined with it. For chronic lower back pain sufferers, one paper found acupuncture to be up to twice as effective as conventional treatment (see video below).
At Village Remedies in Balmain and Sydney CBD we use acupuncture for lower back pain all the time, it is one of the most common types of pain people will seek acupuncture for. We work with people who suffer with an acute onset of sciatica as well as those who have struggled with lower back pain for many years, and everyone in between.
In Chinese medicine, our job is to treat you as a whole person, so even though our main goal is to help you out of pain, we also look to help support your body’s overall ability to heal and recover. It is our experience (and that of modern medical research) that stress will have a major influence on the experience of pain and ability to recover. Which is why we not only assess the pain and the associated physical components, but also look to help offset life stress, improve sleep quality and address any digestive issues. With a more regulated nervous system, you’re in a much better position to heal and feel better into the future.
To achieve this, we predominantly use “distal acupuncture” treatments where points distant to the affected area are needled in order to signal the body to heal that area. This is a particularly useful approach when you come in with moderate to severe pain because there is a much lower risk of your pain being exacerbated, compared with “local acupuncture” methods (including dry needling) which will most often aggravate the area needled initially and is not ideal when there is acute inflammation (in later stages of recovery we may still use local acupuncture where needed).
The long term beneficial effects of acupuncture are cumulative, meaning sometimes we need a few sessions for you to start to feel the changes, but typically we expect to see signs of positive improvements within the first 4 treatments. Not to say that we expect everyone to feel 100% within those sessions, but we do look for signs that you are responding to the acupuncture. Assuming all goes well, we then come up with a plan to work with you, towards your health goals (ideally becoming pain free!).
For those who have suffered chronic pain for many years, this may mean some months of treatment, and perhaps ongoing management (depending on severity) but we monitor your progress closely to ensure you continue to find value from treatment.
In acute pain situations, we recommend acupuncture sessions closer together in order to better manage the initial pain and move you into the recovery phase more quickly. For example, those recovering from a herniated disc, may require regular treatments over some weeks as the body works to reduce inflammation and heal the disc.