Let’s talk about your nervous system! Essentially your body’s command center, it controls how you move, see, breathe + feel.
When you experience an injury, specialized nerve cells known as pain receptors transmit the sensation of discomfort to your brain. And in some cases, your nerves themselves become injured. Take the longest + largest nerve in the human body, for example: The sciatic nerve, which is made up of five nerve roots, starts at the lower back + extends down through your hips, buttocks + down both legs.
When the sciatic nerve becomes pinched, compressed, or inflamed, people may experience pain in any of the areas associated with its path (such as the back, hip, or either leg). This pain is referred to as sciatica – many sciatica patients have found relief treating their pain with acupuncture.
Looking for relief from sciatic nerve pain? Let's explore the benefits of acupuncture for sciatica + what to expect.
What is Sciatica?
Sciatica (also known as lumbar radiculopathy) is defined as nerve pain that affects the back, hip + typically the outer side of one leg – although some sciatica sufferers experience pain on both sides of the body. Nearly 40% of Americans – typically between the ages of 30 + 50 – will experience sciatica at some point in their life. On a global scale, sciatica is more common than you’d think. For example, lower back pain associated with sciatica is a primary reason for hospitalization in the USA.
What Are the Causes of Sciatica?
Sciatic pain occurs when the sciatic nerve becomes pinched, compressed, or inflamed. Many patients describe symptoms of sciatica as a burning, jolting, tingling, numbness + pins-and-needles sensation while others compare it to an electric shock.
The most common cause of sciatica is a herniated or slipped disk in your spinal cord that applies pressure on the sciatic nerve root. However, other possible causes include spinal stenosis (abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal), natural degeneration of the disks, or an overgrowth of bone (known as bone spurs) on your vertebrae.
The Mayo Clinic also lists the following factors as potential risks:
- Age-related changes in the spine
- Gaining excess body weight, which can increase the stress on your spine
- Careers that require prolonged sitting or carrying of heavy loads
- Spondylolisthesis (when a small stress fracture causes one vertebral body to slip forward on another)
Those suffering with sciatic, low back, hip or leg pain can look to acupuncture as a helpful, holistic alternative to surgery + over-the-counter medicine or use it in combination with physical therapy.
How Does Acupuncture Help Sciatica?
A central pillar of Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture is a centuries-old practice that’s been proven to provide effective treatment for pain.
Here’s how it works from WTHN: At your first acupuncture treatment, a licensed acupuncturist will evaluate your health, review the affected area that you’re looking to treat or heal + customize a treatment plan that’s tailored to your specific needs.
During acu treatment, a professional healer will insert 20-30 hair-thin, painless, sterile + disposable acupuncture needles into acupuncture points specific for relieving pain and loosening up tight muscles. Acupuncture points are a meeting place of blood, nerve, lymph and connective tissue. Acupuncture is a natural anti-inflammatory that elicits a physiological response that releases endorphins (aka your brain’s natural painkillers) to reduce pain. It also increases circulation to help relax tight, overworked muscles.
You’re probably wondering: What does acupuncture have to do with sciatica? We’re glad you asked! In 2015, researchers found that acu may be more effective in relieving low back pain from sciatica when used separately from or in addition to over-the-counter painkillers. There are a number of studies that also confirm the efficacy of acupuncture for sciatic pain, suggesting that it has the potential to be twice as effective as conventional treatments – which can include prescription drugs, steroid injections, hot packs, muscle relaxants + in extreme cases, surgical intervention.
When it comes to treating sciatic pain, acupuncturists will insert acupuncture needles to points both locally along the area of pain, as well as distally to points that are analgesic (pain reducing) or relax the connective tissue.
The Benefits of Acupuncture for Sciatica
Aside from the general wellbeing that acupuncture provides – which include better digestion, deeper sleep + decrease in anxiety + depression – there are a range of other benefits that specifically address sciatica symptoms, such as:
- Reducing inflammation + swelling from injury
- Increasing overall blood circulation
- Balancing the central nervous system
- Releasing neurotransmitters in the brain that can naturally reduce the pain of sciatica (i.e. endorphins + serotonin)
- Relaxing sore or tight muscles + joints
What to Expect from Acupuncture for Sciatica Pain
Possibly the biggest question we get when it comes to acupuncture is: Does it hurt? The short answer: Nope! In fact, most patients report little to no pain because of how thin the needles are. That being said, if you’re particularly sensitive to touch or have a lower pain tolerance than most, you might feel a tingling or throbbing sensation caused by the stimulation of your nerves. Don’t worry though, that sensation just means your treatment of sciatica is working!
Below, we answer more of your burning questions about acupuncture:
How Long Do the Sessions Last?
On average, an acu treatment can last between 45 to 60 minutes per session. During that time, the needles will usually be left in for between 20 to 35 minutes.
How Many Sessions Are Typically Required?
This ultimately depends on the severity of your condition + what treatment plan your acupuncturist determines is best for you. However, we recommend getting acupuncture once a month for wellness maintenance or to regularly reset your mind, mood + body from WTHN.
How Long Does it Take to See Results?
Since acupuncture is a cumulative therapy, you will experience increased pain relief from treatment to treatment. You can typically expect to notice results after two to three treatment sessions, though, and in some cases acu can provide immediate results.
How Much Do Sessions Typically Cost?
Here at WTHN, we offer acupuncture treatments at affordable prices that are specifically customized for you + your journey. First-time clients can book a 45-minute session (plus a 15-minute consultation with one of our licensed experts) for only $75. WTHN members receive FREE (!) cupping or ear seeds, up to $20 off per session + 15% off all products, with sessions starting at $85.
We like to think our pricing is pretty reasonable compared to national costs for acupuncture, which usually range between $75 - $100 before the separate $100 - $300 initial consultation fee.
Potential Risks and Side Effects
Acupuncture is safe and good for the majority of people. Those who have a bleeding disorder, are taking blood thinners, are pregnant, or use a pacemaker should notify their acupuncturist of their current health. Make sure your acupuncturist is licensed in the state in which they practice. All WTHN acupuncturist are licensed and have either a Master’s or Doctor’s degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Although uncommon, a few side effects may include:
- Bleeding, a few drops at the site of the acupuncture
- Mild aching sensation at the acupuncture point
Acupuncture offers short- + long-term benefits for pain-related conditions like sciatica. Backed by years of scientific research, acu treatments focus on preventive and curative internal care for acute or chronic pain. In other words: It targets the root of sciatic pain as opposed to solely treating its symptoms – which can often be the priority in Western Medicine. Better yet: It’s a safer, non-surgical alternative to OTC pain medications which are known to become addictive.
Ready to start your healing journey? Explore the benefits of acupuncture memberships at WTHN.