Acupuncture & Pain Relief
For millions of people who live with pain, acupuncture is no longer an exotic curiosity. It’s now widely accepted among the medical community. And it’s pretty popular with patients as well. A recent survey found almost 3.5 million Americans said they’d had acupuncture in the previous year.
“In our clinic, we have been in existence for like 22 years,” says Ka-Kit Hui, MD, founder and director of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine. “We have a 4- or 5-month wait for new patients.”
Acupuncture — in which needles, heat, pressure, and other treatments are applied to certain places on the skin — has come a long way since 1971. That’s when the 2,000-year-old Chinese healing art first caught on in the United States, thanks to a story in The New York Times. The piece was written by a reporter who had visited China and wrote about how doctors healed his pain from back surgery using needles.
In 1996, the FDA gave acupuncture its first U.S. seal of approval, when it classified acupuncture needles as medical devices. In the 20 years since, study after study indicates that, yes, acupuncture can work.
“There’s nothing magical about acupuncture,” Hui says. “Many of these [alternative] techniques, including acupuncture, they all work by activating the body’s own self-healing [mechanism].”
And that’s the main goal of acupuncture: self-healing.
“Our bodies can do it,” says Paul Magarelli, MD, a clinical professor at California’s Yo San University. “We are not animals who are dependent on drugs.”
If you’re deciding if acupuncture is right for you, it’s best to be open to its benefits and skeptical of claims it’s a magical cure-all.
“It should be part of a comprehensive approach to solve problems,” Hui says.
Acupuncture has long been recognized as an effective treatment for chronic pain. In 2012, a study found acupuncture was better than no acupuncture or simulated acupuncture for the treatment of four chronic pain conditions:
- Back and neck pain
- Osteoarthritis (your doctor may call it “degenerative joint disease” or “wear and tear arthritis)
- Chronic headache
- Shoulder pain
The National Institutes of Health calls the study “the most rigorous evidence to date that acupuncture may be helpful for chronic pain.”
Now, doctors are eager to find a drug-free approach to pain treatment in light of the dangers of opioids — the class of powerful pain medications that includes codeine, morphine, OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin. In March, the CDC called deaths from opioid overdoses “an epidemic.”
Now, the CDC says doctors should turn to other treatments for chronic pain in cases that don’t involve active cancer, palliative care, and end-of-life care.
“Now, you’re like, ‘OK, well, if we’re not using opioids, what should we use?'” says Houman Danesh, MD, director of integrative pain management at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. That dilemma has many people giving acupuncture a second look when it comes to treating pain.
“If a lot of people recognize the value of acupuncture,” Hui says, “it will be one of the components of addressing the prescription drug epidemic that we’re talking about in our country right now.”
Many who get treatment for cancer get acupuncture in addition to standard cancer treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. Acupuncture can help people who have nausea and vomiting during treatment.
“We have many patients come through with cancer,” Hui says. He adds his department treats people in all phases of cancer treatment: from those who are newly diagnosed, to those dealing with the discomfort of cancer treatment, to those in the later stages.
Keep in mind, chemo and radiation weaken the body’s immune system. So it’s important for your acupuncturist to follow strict clean-needle procedures.
How acupuncture works for sciatica
Different types of sciatic pain
Sciatic pain (sciatica) usually affects only one side of the body, with the pain extending from the lower back/buttocks down the leg. When asked to specify what they’re feeling, our patients with sciatic pain describe the following:
- Pain in the buttocks or leg that worsens with sitting
- Burning, tingling, or searing pain down the leg
- Weakness, numbness or difficulty moving the leg or foot
- Constant pain on one side of the buttocks
- Shooting, sharp pain making it difficult to stand
Sciatic pain and its causes
Sciatic pain is a symptom of an underlying medical condition of the lower back area. The sciatic nerve originates in the lower back, runs through the buttocks, and down the back of each leg. Portions of the sciatic nerve branch to various areas of the leg, like the calf or toes. Sciatic pain occurs when there is a structural impingement or compression of the sciatic nerve in the lower back. This occurs when there is an acute injury to the lower back or can be the result of long-term degeneration of the lumbar area. The location of the painful symptoms in the leg depends on where in the lower back the sciatic nerve is being compressed.
Common causes of sciatic pain
- Degenerative disc disease (the breakdown of the discs that provide cushion between the vertebrae)
- Lumbar spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal)
- Spondylolisthesis (a fracture in the wing-shaped portion of a vertebrae that causes it to slip forward over another vertebrae)
- Pregnancy (increased pressure on the lumbar spine)
- Herniated lumbar disc A.K.A. Slipped disc, Bulging disc, Pinched nerve (the cushion between vertebrae is pushed to the outer portion of the spine)
How does acupuncture work physiologically for pain relief?
By inserting small needles into specific sites on the body, the needles trigger a response from the nervous system. This response from the nervous system leads our brain to:
- Release a cascade of natural painkillers (endorphins and enkephalins),
- Increase blood flow to the painful area,
- Relax the muscles in the surrounding area.
For more details, read our full article on how acupuncture works physiologically for pain relief.
How we treat sciatic pain at Transformational Acupuncture
The most common treatments for sciatic pain involve surgery to repair the underlying structural issues in the lower back, epidural steroid injections, pain killers, and hot/cold therapy. Regular acupuncture treatments offer a safe and gentle alternative for pain management. A large proportion of our patients with sciatica have responded quite well to acupuncture, both for acute pain relief, and also for help with managing and resolving their condition over time. While acupuncture cannot heal the structural issues of the lower back that cause sciatica, it is a useful, side-effect free treatment for the management of the pain.
At Transformational Acupuncture, we treat sciatic pain using the Balance Method style of acupuncture. For more information, read our full article about the Balance Method and how we select acupuncture points for pain relief.
Typically we treat sciatic pain by placing acupuncture needles along the inside of the lower calf/ankle and along the wrist/forearm area. We take a two-pronged approach. First, we target the lower back, to increase blood flow and muscle relaxation around the lumbar vertebrae. Then, we target the sciatic nerve to influence muscle relaxation and blood flow regulation along the pathway of the pain in the leg.
Sciatica case studies from our acupuncture clinic in Washington DC
Acupuncture points for treating sciatic pain vary, depending on the exact location and pathway of the pain. Below is a case study from our acupuncture clinic illustrating how we’ve helped patients to manage sciatic pain.
“AD”, 40 years old from Washington DC, with right-sided Sciatic Pain:
AD started having sciatic pain about 1 year before she came into the clinic. Like many people, the pain started suddenly, and didn’t have any obvious cause. It didn’t respond well to physical therapy or chiropractic work, and she didn’t want to continue relying on Advil long-term. The pain level was around 7/10 when waking up in the morning, getting better over the day, but worse again by the end of the day with so much sitting at the office. Due to the location of the sciatica, we chose acupuncture points on the hands and forearm, including Small Intestine 2, 3, and 4, and San Jiao 3, 4, 5 and 6. (Find out more information on how we select the acupuncture points). Her pain was reduced by 50% after the first session, which lasted for a few days. She then came in 2 times per week for 3 weeks, followed by once per week for 4 weeks. At that time her sciatica was reduced by 100% on some days, and by 75-80% on other days.
Research on the effectiveness of acupuncture for sciatic pain
Meta-analysis shows acupuncture a clinically relevant option for sciatica
This meta-analysis compared 122 different studies to determine the clinical effectiveness of various treatment strategies for sciatica. Researchers found a statistically significant improvement in patients who received acupuncture. This study shows us that there are a variety of options to consider when treating sciatic pain and that acupuncture can be of particular therapeutic value, especially when coupled with other pain-management techniques. More information here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24412033
Acupuncture shown to have pain-relieving effect on sciatica
This study compared 2 methods for treating sciatic pain using acupuncture. Method 1 used 1-2 needles in the gluteal area. Method 2 called for several needles at various points on the body along with 1-2 needles in the gluteal area. Researchers found both methods to be successful, with method 1 providing slightly more relief. This finding is an indication that very few needles can be used to treat sciatic pain, as long as proper point selection is maintained. More information here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21692291
Chinese herbal medicine for sciatic pain
With a full Chinese herbal pharmacy, our patients with sciatic pain can also reap the benefits of Chinese herbal medicine. We custom formulate every herbal preparation for the patient’s specific condition and constitution. To decide which herbs will make up the mixture, we use the following diagnostic techniques:
- Analyze the patient’s symptoms,
- Measure the pulse,
- Observe the tongue.
While each formula will vary depending on the needs of the individual, the herbs listed below are examples of ingredients commonly found in sciatic pain formulas. As a group, these herbs function to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, and regulate blood flow.