Updated: Feb 17
The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body and begins from nerve roots in the lumbar spinal cord in the low back and runs through the buttock area down to the lower limb ending at the feet. Sciatic pain is caused by irritation of the sciatic nerve. Anything that irritates this nerve can cause pain, ranging from mild to severe. It is one of the causes for low back pain. The main symptom is a shooting pain anywhere along the sciatic nerve; from the lower back, through the buttock, and down the back of either leg. The pain may be stabbing, burning or shooting. It can be also accompanied with tingling like pins and needles, or numbness, and muscle weakness. The most typical symptom is unilateral leg pain radiating to the foot or toes that is greater than low back pain. It may involve increased pain on straight leg raising and neurological symptoms limited to one nerve root. The pain may last just a few days or for months or years. The pain often gets worse over time and may also be made worse by: sneezing, coughing or laughing, standing or sitting for a long period of time, bending backwards. The treatment for sciatica is primarily aimed at pain control. Early treatment can help release the pain quicker.
Many studies investigated the effect of acupuncture on sciatica. For example, a study involved with 962 patients with sciatica has shown that acupuncture significantly released sciatic pain and related other symptoms. Acupuncture was more effective than pain killers NSAIDs (ibuprofen, meloxicam, and diclofenac). Another study involved with a total of 1842 patients with sciatica has also shown that acupuncture reduces sciatic pain significantly and reduction of pain was greater than conventional medication such as ibuprofen as mentioned above. Acupuncture is clinically effective, reduces pain intensity, and increases pain threshold in patients with sciatica. Another study examined the effect of acupuncture in treating sciatica. 57 patients with non-acute sciatica aged 35-70 were recruited. The acupuncture treatment was administered twice weekly for 4 weeks. The pain was measured before and 4 weeks after acupuncture treatments. Result has shown that the pain is significantly improved for all patients. They suggested that acupuncture is safe and may effectively relieve symptoms and disability in patients with non-acute sciatica.
How does acupuncture work? Acupuncture stimulates inhibitory nerve fibers for a short period, reducing transmission of pain signal to the brain. Acupuncture also activates endogenous analgesic mechanisms causing secretion of endorphin which is an endogenous opioid and triggering release of adenosine producing a rapidly effective analgesic action on radicular sciatica. Extensive research has shown that acupuncture analgesia may be initiated by stimulation of high-threshold, small-diameter nerves in the muscles.
Liu CH et al J Pain Res. 2019 Dec 31;12:3511-3520. doi: 10.2147/JPR.S210672. eCollection 2019. Qin et al Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015;2015:425108. doi: 10.1155/2015/425108. Ji m et al Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015;2015:192808. doi: 10.1155/2015/192808.