What Is Sciatica?
Sciatic pain usually isn’t hard to diagnose. It usually starts in your lower back or butt, and runs down the side, and occasionally, the back of your leg. The pain may drop off somewhere around your knee, or it may travel all the way into your ankle and foot. Folks who’ve had sciatic pain, or sciatica, describe it as deep, dull, achy, and nagging. For some, the pain will include numbness and tingling in their foot and toes. Sciatica tends to be one-sided, and can disrupt your gait, cause weakness in your leg, and keep you up all night.
What Causes Sciatic Pain?
The term sciatica is not necessarily a diagnosis, but rather a way of describing pain that comes from an entrapped or inflamed sciatic nerve. There are actually several conditions that can result in sciatic pain, and most are fairly common. Among them:
-Disc problems. Your spine has discs in between each vertebrae that are made up of a tough outer layer surrounding a fibrous inner gel. Your discs absorb shock, allow for movement of the spine, and help hold your spinal joints together. The problem with discs is that they can bulge, rupture, or wear thin over time. When that happens, the vertebrae in your spine become compressed or displaced, causing pain, inflammation, and even impinging on nerves in the area. When one of the discs in your lower back becomes injured or inflamed, it’s not unusual for it to press on your sciatic nerve, which can cause pain in your back, butt, or down your leg.
-Stenosis of the spine is a narrowing of the bony pathways through which your spinal nerves pass. As the pathways narrow, it causes compression on the affected nerves. Stenosis commonly affects the sciatic nerve, causing pain and numbness. In most cases, spinal stenosis is a degenerative condition associated with aging.
-Piriformis syndrome is actually caused by a tight or spastic muscle pressing on your sciatic nerve. Your piriformis muscles runs deep through your butt, from your sacrum (at the base of your spine) to your hip, and when it becomes tight or injured it can press the sciatic nerve against your pelvic bone, causing pain along the pathway of the nerve. Sciatic pain caused by the piriformis muscle often ends around your knee, rather than traveling into your foot and toes.
How Can Acupuncture Help?
In Chinese medicine, pain along the trajectory of your sciatic nerve is considered to be a blockage in your Gallbladder energy meridian, which is an energetic and muscular pathway that runs along the side of your body. This doesn’t mean that you have problems with your Gallbladder, but describes the location and course of your pain. The goal of an acupuncturist in treating sciatic pain is to remove the blockage that’s causing your pain and increase circulation in the area. Your practitioner would likely combine acupuncture with other healing tools to relieve your pain, such as electric stimulation, bodywork, and heat therapy.
The bottom line is that if you’re suffering from sciatic pain, acupuncture may offer some relief. While acupuncture can’t change structural problems, such as the narrowing caused by stenosis, it can be an effective treatment for sciatic pain for a couple of reasons. First, it acts to decrease inflammation locally, in the areas where the needles have been placed, to calm down your cranky nerve. It also increases circulation throughout your body, which speeds up the healing process. In terms of pain relief, acupuncture actually alters your brain chemistry—in a good way, in that it activates your body’s own opioid-like pain relieving chemicals and it blocks the chemicals that transmit pain signals to your brain. If sciatic pain is keeping you up nights or hampering your quality of life, it may be time to talk to your Chinese medicine practitioner about the effectiveness of acupuncture in relieving your pain.
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Dr. Filiz Bakir is a licensed acupuncturist and practitioner of Chinese medicine. She is also the medical director and founder of Thrive Wellness Center with offices in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton, FL.