Winter is the time of year when sciatica and lower back problems seem to be at their worst.
The combination of a more sedentary lifestyle, more sitting and less activity combined with over-indulgence during the holiday season creates conditions for lower back strain or pain.
Sciatica is a condition where the sciatic nerve is irritated.
The most telltale symptom of sciatica is pain that radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve—from the lumbar area to the buttock and down the back of the leg.
The pain can be anywhere from a mild ache to a severe sharp or burning pain, numbness or weak muscles along the nerve pathway, and tingling or pins and needles feeling in the toes or foot.
The irritation of the sciatic nerve can result from pressure from muscles that are too tense or too short, a bulging disc in the lumbar vertebral column that pushes on the nerve, an inflammation of the nerve, a narrowing of the spinal canal as we age, or bad posture or heavy work that involves a lot of lifting and bending over.
The pain can be severe and often gets worse while sitting too long, driving, bending over and lifting heavy objects. Sciatica is a widespread injury and about 40 per cent of us will eventually be affected by it in some form.
Sciatic pain will sometimes be the sign of a herniated disc and it is certainly wise to pay attention to it in an early stage and get expert advice.
In Western medicine sciatica can be treated in different ways.
The massage therapist will loosen the tension in the muscles of the back and leg, in order to relieve the sciatic nerve, the physiotherapist will prescribe exercises to improve posture and stretch muscles and can apply ultrasound or interferential current.
The chiropractor will align the spine in order to relieve pressure on the nerve.
The doctor can prescribe painkillers or anti-inflammatories and the surgeon can operate to remove the bulging of the disc or contributing problem.
In TCM, sciatica is considered to be a lower back problem, an area strongly influenced by the bladder and kidney channels.
Sciatica can be differentiated into different types, depending on the exact cause.
Damp-cold invading the back channels can occur in both acute and chronic cases, causing a dull, heavy, radiating pain that may be worse with cold or dampness.
Sciatica due to stagnation of qi-energy and blood in the back can cause either an acute or chronic condition that is aggravated with the absence of movement.
Sciatica due to kidney deficiency will result in a chronic condition because weak kidneys cannot properly nourish the lower back area, making it susceptible to injury and dysfunction.
This type of sciatica has a slow, gradual onset and typically will get worse in the evening and with fatigue.
Acupuncture can be extremely effective in the treatment of both acute and chronic back pain, including sciatica, regardless of how long the condition has been present.
Sciatica usually takes longer to treat than other types of back pain, but acupuncture can produce great results, both in treating the pain and in addressing the underlying weakness that is contributing to a sciatic problem.
Acupuncture actually helps to strengthen the lower back area to relieve sciatica and prevent re-occurrences.
Often in cases where there is a stubborn problem that doesn’t seem to respond to treatment, acupuncture can remove the blockages and open the doors for healing.
Combined with exercises and postural advice, is a very valuable tool in treating sciatica.
James Kaufman is a registered acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre in Kelowna.