Sciatica in Eastern Medicine

One Friday afternoon, as I was about to treat the last patients in my clinic, a person came to see me limping on his left leg. He said the pain had started out mild 2 weeks ago but now was so severe that he couldn’t walk properly. He had rushed to the clinic to have a massage or chiropractic treatment for the first time, but since no one but myself, the acupuncturist, was there, he was inevitably treated with acupuncture. My treatment room was full at the time, so I prepared a spare bed immediately, asked him to lie down, and inserted needles into his other leg. I was so busy treating my scheduled patients that I couldn’t give my full attention to him. Yet 40 minutes later, he got up ahead of the other patients, tried stepping carefully along the corridor, and shouted, “Way better!” as he walked away with a normal gait.

Sciatica often occurs in the forties and fifties. It is a pain syndrome which occurs in the buttocks, thigh, calf, and foot due to compression, injury, and inflammation of the sciatic nerve. It is usually caused by a herniated intervertebral disc, lumbar spinal stenosis, or neuromuscular injury, and is accompanied by pains, hot sensations, numbness, paralysis, paresthesia, or a dull heavy feeling radiating from the lower back or hip to the thigh, calf and/or foot, sometimes with accompanying weakness in the leg.

In Eastern medicine, sciatica is classified as lumbar leg pain, or lumbar pain due to kidney deficiency, qi deficiency, and/or blood stasis. This occurs either when pathogens in our body attack the related meridian and disturb the circulation of Qi and blood, or when blood stasis gathers in the lumbar or hip area. Another cause is aging which affects body essence and blood. It’s very interesting that the distribution of sciatic symptoms corresponds exactly with the body’s urinary bladder meridian (pain in the back of the leg) or gall bladder meridian (pain in the side of the leg), so we treat these meridians first.

Acupuncture is good for the treatment of sciatica, except in those cases requiring surgery. Stimulation through acupuncture opens blockages in the pathway between peripheral and central nervous systems, and at the same time promotes the secretion of painkilling substances such as endorphins and enkephalins. These painkilling effects last from a few hours to a few days. When the pain recurs, needling is again required. If each cycle is followed through, eventually the pain ceases to return and recovery happens at the root level.

A simple case of sciatica may heal on its own, but you may suffer from severe stress due to too much pain. Such stress can actually make sciatica last longer, so the sooner you can come to an acupuncture clinic, the shorter a time you may suffer from it. It takes 1 to 6 months to heal sciatica using acupuncture and herbs.


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