Sciatica affects over 3 million people a year and is one of the most common lower back problems to date. Pain usually originates in the spine (lower back or sacrum) and radiates down the back of the leg via the sciatic nerve (the sciatic nerve is the largest nerve in the body). It usually affects one side of the body and can also have symptoms of difficulty walking, muscle weakness, leg numbness or pins and needles, burning sensation, foot numbness/weakness. Sometimes the hip becomes involved and pain radiates down the side or front of the leg.
There are two main areas in which the sciatic nerve can get impinged. The first is the spine (L4 to S1). The second is at the piriformis. The piriformis is a deep muscle in the buttocks that attaches to both the greater trochanter of the femor and the sacrum. The sciatic nerve runs below this muscle and, in a small percentage of the population, through the piriformis. When the piriformis becomes tight, it bears down on the nerve, causing sciatic pain down to the foot or ankle.
What happens to the muscles when one of these two areas impinges on the sciatic nerve? When the body experiences a pain response, it contracts all the muscles around that inflamed area and shuts off blood flow. This is a natural response to protect the injured area and stop the body from being impacted by that area. The negative aspect of this response is that the area can become disabled as injured tissue does not receive fresh blood flow to heal it and contracted muscle bears down even more on the sciatic nerve which causes further pain. The more pain the body feels, the more it shuts down the area of injury. And, thus, a negative, vicious cycle happens until the symptom becomes debilitating.
Acupuncture works to alleviate and, in many cases, fix sciatic pain because of several factors. First, by inserting small painless needles into the area of injury, the body recognizes that something has invaded the skin barrier and vasodilates, allowing fresh blood flow to flood the area to clean up any possible invasion through the skin. Second, needling into the body creates an inflammatory response that first starts off within an increase in inflammation for a few hours, but, in the end, actually resolves inflammation in the area of injury that has been building for weeks or months or years (depending on how long the patient has had sciatica). Third, needling the motor nerves of the contracted muscles temporarily excites those nerves before they completely relax and, thus, allowing the muscles to finally relax and ease off the sciatic nerve. Finally, the body dumps endorphins (its natural painkilling hormones) into the body which gives the patient up to 72 hours of pain relief while the body heals the injured area. In short, acupuncture relaxes contracted muscles, decreases inflammation, heals damaged tissue and relieves pain. Studies have proven that acupuncture is a perfect therapy for sciatica. This fact is recognized by the WHO, NIH, BCBS/United/Aetna/Cigna, VA , FDA, American College of Physicians as well as many other medical associations. Click here for one such study.