People ask all the time, what exactly is acupuncture and how does it work? This is not a simple question to answer, but in this post I will attempt to provide an easy to understand explanation for the basic mechanisms and principles behind acupuncture.
Acupuncture is an ancient form of medical treatment that has had millenia to evolve into a complete holistic health care system. Licensed Providers use acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a treatment method helping millions or people become well and stay that way. Its non-invasive approach is not only almost completely painless, but has relatively few risks and side effects when compared to traditional Western medical interventions like pharmaceuticals and surgery.
Acupuncture encourages the body to heal itself naturally by enhancing immunity and the inherent recuperative powers we have. Through natural approaches, it improves overall function and well-being. One if those approaches is through the process of balancing 'Qi'.
Qi (or Chee) is an innate property of the body that flows through pathways which are called meridians in TCM. This substance provides nourishment to organs and cells in the body through the use of specific points activated by tiny needles. When this system gets blocked there is an imbalance which causes illness and symptoms to appear.
The Movement of Qi
Most imbalances are easily fixed by the body's inherent ability to heal. The body wants to be in balance and can usually find a way to get back to it. However, if the disruption is extreme or chronic, or the your body is already compromised and weakened, then disease, pain, and illnesses can take root.There are 15 main meridians in the body that Qi flows through in a day. Each one is connected to a specific organ system or gland. Think of the system as like a flowing river, where the river flows, life blossoms. Where Qi flows, the tissues of the body blossom - and healing occurs.
When the river stagnates, the flow is stopped and qi cannot get where it needs to and illness/pain occurs. This can happen through traumas - physical and emotional - stress, working too much, not working out enough, poor eating habits, or a number of other things the influence the abundance of Qi in the body.
More and more evidence is coming out showing that stimulation of acupuncture points causes the release and regulation of neurochemicals and hormones, helping restore the body's natural healing abilities and return it to a state of balance. Whether it's influencing the nervous system to relax in patients dealing with PTSD, helping break the cycle in patients suffering from chronic pain, or helping increase energy for patients suffering from Depression - the regenerative powers of TCM and Acupuncture are astounding.
During an initial treatment, a full health history is recorded and questions are about lifestyle and current symptoms. A physical examination is conducted including taking traditional pulse and tongue evaluations. This allows the practitioner to find Qi imbalances causing the symptoms and root cause of the illness. They will create a plan and begin inserting tiny, sterile needles in the appropriate acupuncture points. This can unblock the stagnation and rebalance the Qi. Ultimately this can eliminate pain, and return the body's natural ability to heal.
Stay healthy, friends!
Common Misconceptions can delay or prevent treatment of the problem
Almost everyday someone asks me if acupuncture can help their sciatica because they haven't been able to find anything that works. And the answer is of course it can help. Here is a great meta analysis for you science geeks. TLDR? Don't worry I got you:
Okay now that we know acupuncture can help sciatica, let's get to the key part of this post - the basic misunderstanding of sciatica:
Okay, but what's that mean? A diagnosis is the reason a thing is happening, and a syndrome is just a description of the pain. E.g. Kidney stones are the diagnosis behind urinary pain. This may just seem like semantics but it's important that you know the mechanism causing your pain or you might not be getting the appropriate treatment.
Sciatic pain can be caused by a number of things, but is most often caused by a disc issue in the low back - which could be caused by a degenerative problem, a herniation, pregnancy, and even spondylolisthesis. Imaging such as x-rays and MRIs can help us learn if there really is a disc issue. But honestly lost of people have disc problems who never even have any symptoms. So even when people have sciatic pain are diagnosed with a disc issue, that might not still be the root cause. Often times sciatic pain is caused by something caused Piriformis Syndrome and has nothing to do with the low back. Here, take a look at the sciatic nerve:
As you can see it travels all the way down the back of the leg after it comes out from the lumbar spine, and goes right underneath the piriformis muscle. So when the muscle is very tight it can also compress the sciatic nerve, causing the exact same symptoms as lumbar based sciatic pain. If you have a piriformis problem but no one ever treats it, then you're not going to get lasting results. Of course some distal treatments on the channel can relieve some pain, but that tight piriformis is still there and it's going to start impinging on the sciatic nerve again. Thus, proper diagnosis is very important for effective treatment.
Luckily there are a number of physical assessments that a provider can do to determine if the issue is back related, piriformis related, or in some cases even both. So here's the rub, you're going to have to advocate for yourself. If your provider hears your symptoms and diagnoses you with "sciatica" but never does any physical assessment (or even simple palpation), then you may need to go see someone else who has a better understanding of the complexities involved with sciatic pain.
Finally, when you and your provider figure out what is causing the sciatic, then the treatment approach can be determined and your protocol can start. With low back and spinal/disc related sciatic pain, working on the low back with acupuncture needles can decrease pain by stimulating blood flow and relaxing the muscles which puts less strain on the spine and discs. Acupuncturists also use a variety of distal techniques meaning they can treat the pain in the channel from different areas of the body, so don't be surprised if they put needles all over the body. For piriformis related sciatic pain, the focus will of course be on the piriformis and releasing this muscle's tightness to let up the pressure from its exerting on the sciatic nerve. One easy way to get yourself feeling better is to use a foam roller to go across the piriformis and glutes.
If you're struggling with sciatic pain, contact Red Raven Acupuncture and come in for an assessment and see if you would be a good candidate for this approach.
Stay healthy, friends!
~The Red Raven
Bret Kyle Rogers, L.Ac.
Texas based acupuncturist, qigong teacher, and herbalist demystifying Chinese medicine. The author frequently links to Amazon.com for specific products. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases and appreciate your business!