Sciatica is caused by compression of nerves of the spine and manifests with pain in the leg. Up to 10% of people with back pain will also complain of sciatic pain. Generally speaking, the problem is regarded as sciatica when the leg pain is worse than the back pain. The problem can start off as being predominately most painful in the low back and later present itself as leg pain. Depending on which vertebra of the lower back are affected, the area of leg pain will vary. For example, if the problem is in mainly in the 5th lumbar vertebra, the pain can travel to the front of the foot and big toe. As well as pain, sciatica can have numbness and decreased range of movement.
One of the tests to confirm sciatica is known as the leg raise. This is done by trying to lift the leg up into the air from a lying down position.
Research from 2007 found that western medical treatment of sciatica including corticosteroid injections, muscle relaxants and NSAIDS was of little benefit. In about 30% of patients with sciatica, the pain can last up to a year or longer.
Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to treat low back pain and sciatica. Most of the research done in the West has been done on low back pain and not specifically on sciatica. This research on low back pain has demonstrated that acupuncture is clearly a beneficial therapy. In fact in the UK, acupuncture is covered by the National Health Scheme and in New Zealand, sciatica treatment is covered by the ACC.
Many patients ask, if the problem of sciatica is caused from the vertebra compressing the nerves, how acupuncture can help that.
When the muscles go into spasm or tightness, they pull the vertebra out of place which then compresses the nerve. Research in 2009 showed that acupuncture improved muscle stiffness as well the increasing the joint mobility. It did this by reducing inflammation and increasing local micro blood circulation which thus stimulated rejuvenation and regeneration of the injured tissue.
In fact, other research has shown that acupuncture can actually promote regeneration of the sciatic nerve and even increase the blood circulation related to the sciatic nerve. This in combination with the known and proven effects of acupuncture reducing pain and swelling is why so many doctors are referring patients to members of the New Zealand Register of Acupuncturists throughout the country as the first choice of treatment for sciatica.