A Chinese Medicine Approach to Sciatica

By Dr. Brent Wells, D.C. /

A Chinese Medicine Approach to Sciatica

Sciatica can often feel like a deep pain that starts in your low back or buttocks and radiates down the back of your thigh, sometimes it can even cause pain all the way down your leg and into your foot, making every step and movement excruciating.  Traditional Chinese Medicine may have some very effective options for treating and preventing sciatica -- possibly even better than modern Western medicine. 

What is Sciatica?

The sciatic nerves are the largest nerves in your body. They start in your low lumbar spine and travel down through the buttocks, the leg, and all the way through the soles of your feet and your toes. At its largest, the sciatic nerve is roughly the diameter of a pen. 

Sciatica happens when the nerve itself or a root that forms the nerve becomes pinched. This is usually the result of a ruptured or slipped disk in the back that puts pressure on the nerve or root, causing pain to radiate down some or all of the sciatic nerve. Osteoarthritis can also contribute to sciatica by narrowing the exit from the lower spine through which the nerve passes. As a result, sciatica is more common in older adults.

Symptoms of Sciatica

Pain is the most common symptom of sciatica, but sometimes the pain isn’t unbearable. It can be a dull throb, a feeling of pins-and-needles, or even a warm numbness. Although it usually goes away on its own, you may be wondering what you can do to reduce the pain and limit its chances of recurring.

Risk Factors for Sciatica

Prevention is always the best medicine, and risk factors can give you an idea of things you may need to change to prevent sciatica. 

Prolonged Sitting

If you work at a desk or sit for many hours a day, you may be at higher risk for sciatica. Remember to get up, move around, and stretch frequently.

Excess Weight

If you’re overweight, you run a greater risk of experiencing sciatica. Exercise and healthy eating can help prevent a myriad of health issues, including sciatica.

Smoking

Like many other maladies, smoking increases your risk of sciatica. Quitting can help you stave off the chances.

Chinese Medicine and Sciatica

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) sees sciatica as an imbalance in the body. While this refers more to the energy pathways of the body, it’s true that sciatica is caused by an imbalance— usually a herniated disk. TCM, therefore, has three different treatment options for sciatica. TCM practitioners determine which treatment is right on a case-by-case basis, ensuring that the patient gets the correct treatment for their particular situation.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is the use of small, sterilized needles placed in the body to relieve pain by promoting proper alignment of the body. Some feel that the healing effects are due to the flow of energy promoted by acupuncture, while others believe that the effects are neurological in nature. One thing is sure: studies show acupuncture effective in treating some types of pain.  

A review of the efficacy of acupuncture in treating sciatica showed promising results. One study showed a 94% improvement after only four treatments. Another study showed 72% cured and a 7.1% marked improvement.

Herbal Treatments

One of the major causes or irritants of sciatica, according to TCM, is a Wind-Cold-Damp Bi obstruction. Essentially what this means is that outside forces such as cold, wind, and dampness can affect the body’s Qi (energy). When the body’s Qi is affected, illness and misalignment can creep in unobstructed.

One of the ways to relieve pain from sciatica is through herbal medicine that warms the body and fights off the wind, cold, and dampness so the body’s energy can return to normal. 

There are many different herbs used for these purposes, depending on the particular malady. For sciatica, a couple of herbs include Dipsacus (Xu Duan), for pain relief and stiffness, and eucommia (Du Zhong) for backache. For more herbs and their healing properties, check out Joint Vitality.

Massage Therapy

Another common TCM for treating sciatica is massage therapy, also known as Tui Na. The sessions can last anywhere from half an hour to several hours, depending on the patient and the severity of the pain. Sometimes hot and cold therapy as well as herbal ointments are used in conjunction with massage therapy.

Qi Gong

Exercise tends to help sciatica. Which is why Qi Gong has long been a staple in Traditional Chinese Medicine. And not just for treating sciatica. Many people perform Qi Gong exercises daily as a way to keep their energy and body balanced and healthy. 

You can watch Qi Gong videos on YouTube for free. It’s all about the flow of Qi, which is the energy in everything. It’s believed to be extremely powerful and healing when harnessed with Qi Gong exercises.

Other Non-Surgical Sciatica Treatments

The Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments listed above carry very little risk of negative side effects. However, if you’re looking for something a little more familiar, you can try these other non-surgical sciatica treatment options.

Chiropractic Treatment

Many people ask: does chiropractic help sciatica? People tend to associate chiropractic methods with the skeleton alone. The truth is that chiropractors can and do help treat sciatica. 

Much like the philosophy behind TCM, chiropractic care is based on the fact that a misalignment in the body can cause all kinds of different problems. Chiropractors employ multiple tactics to properly your body and take the pressure off of your sciatic nerve— no matter the underlying cause. 

Stretching

Much like Qi Gong exercises, stretching can help relieve the pain from sciatica. Sometimes all it takes is a little gentle and deliberate stretching to take the pressure off your sciatic nerve.

Talk to a Doctor

Some sciatica is persistent and doesn’t go away on its own. If you’ve been experiencing the pain for more than a few days— or the pain is debilitating— you may want to schedule a visit with a doctor or chiropractor. They can run tests and diagnoses to determine the cause of the pain and determine if it is indeed sciatica. You can then plan treatment options from there. 

Resources:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/sciatica-of-all-the-nerve

http://www.jneuropsychiatry.org/peer-review/therapeutic-approach-of-acupuncture-for-sciatica-a-brief-review.html

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5234349/

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/156488#what_is_acupuncture

Dr. Brent Wells founded Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab in 1998. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree before moving on to complete his doctorate from Western States Chiropractic College. The goal for Dr. Wells is to treat his patients in Juneau, Alaska through physical therapy, chiropractic care, and massage therapy with care and compassion while providing them with a better quality of life.

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