From a biomedical perspective, low back or sciatic pain almost always involves something structural – a disc issue, misalignment or inflammation of the vertebrae or sacroiliac joint, or muscle spasm in the low back or buttocks. Any and all of these things can cause irritation to the sciatic nerve which exits the spine in the low back and runs down the leg. It is painful, irritating, can be long lasting if not properly treated, and is very common especially this time of year. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) observes that the increased frequency of this condition is also influenced by the cold damp weather we are exposed to in late Fall and Winter. In fact, many physical conditions that are diagnosed have a pattern of presentation that relates to time of year and weather – arthritis, allergies, colds, neck and shoulder pain and skin conditions are just a few more. TCM recognizes that while internal mechanical problems are usually found to explain pain patterns, individual imbalances in conjunction with external influences such as cold, damp, wind or heat combine to create many of these issues of imbalance, and many can be easily corrected once identified and properly treated.
Low back or sciatic pain can be explained from a TCM perspective as being the result of cold or damp blocking the circulation in the body, trauma causing stagnation the circulation of energy (Qi) or blood, or from an underlying condition of deficiency in the body. Treatment of this condition can and should vary greatly for each person based on their individual presentation. Acupuncture is extremely effective in treating this condition and selection of points and technique will depend on what the cause is. Motor point needling is a style of acupuncture that addresses the muscle imbalances in the body and corrects each muscle group to assist in releasing spasm, lengthening shortened muscles which quickly relieve compression of the nerves, and also re establishes functional and balanced communication with the nervous system and muscle groups. Because acupuncture needles vary in length, many of the deeper muscles that are causing this type of pain are safely and easily released with this therapy. Other needling techniques can be focused on relaxing muscle groups that are pulling the skeletal system out of alignment, and also used locally to reduce inflammation in the joints or disc areas and promote healthy blood flow. In cases where needles are just too strong (often with children or very frail conditions) laser therapy can be used to stimulate most of these areas with great success. Though these former techniques are all addressing the main medical causes of such pain, many cases are not always responsive to this approach alone and the reason is because there are usually issues of internal imbalance such as stagnation or deficiency. That is why acupuncture treatments will also utilize points in other parts of the body that are known to build strength where there is weakness, move areas that have become stagnant from cold, damp or poor circulation, or warm areas that are cold and blocked. In addition, many combinations of herbs are used internally to support underlying conditions or topically as salves or liniments to reduce pain, inflammation, relax spasm and promote circulation and warmth. Diet is also a very useful medicine and simple recommendations to avoid some foods and increase others at various times of year are made to support and maintain balance with our changing external environment. And of course, it just isn’t worth it without some massage. TCM uses many forms of massage (called TUI NA) to release the surface and also manipulate deep tissue areas that cause pain, and encourage renewed circulation and relaxation.
Because TCM uses a variety of tools to address conditions like sciatic pain, it can often reduce pain or need for medications in very few treatments. On its own, or in conjunction with other treatment modalities, it is a very effective approach for low back or sciatic pain and one that can restore your body’s balance and support you to stay active and well through our winter season.