Q: I have trapped nerves in my lower back. My pain radiates down my left leg into my foot. I have now had three sessions of acupuncture. Both of my legs feel a lot worse. They ache tingle and throb. Walking is more difficult for me and I walk a lot slower. I should be having another three sessions but I am reluctant to go back.
A: We are sorry to hear that you seem to have developed slightly worse or different symptoms after your treatment.
We would be very surprised to find that the acupuncture has actually made things worse in a directly causal way. Short of sticking a needle into a nerve there isn't a great deal a practitioner can do in the lower back which would generate the symptoms of which you speak. The only time we have come across this is when someone has a trapped nerves because of changes in physical structure, and the muscles have been guarding to hold the vertebrae apart. If treatment caused these to relax, then it is just possible that this has let bony structures change position and increase the level of impingement. We do know that physios offer this as a caution when treating lower back pains and nerve impingement, but they do tend to use more vigorous techniques than we do, and this can magnify the effects.
Another, and more likely possibility, is that the treatment has started to encourage the structure of the spine into a better shape. We do sometimes find that after long periods of operating out of shape the body's musculature can start to adapt, so when improved function starts to bring the structure back into alignment some muscles relax and others tighten to accommodate the new position, both of which can generate mildly unpleasant symptoms.
Of course, the third and less palatable possibility is that something has changed or deteriorated in the back alongside rather than because of treatment, and this has created new and unpleasant symptoms such as those you now have. This can sometimes happen, and we encourage our members not to get into pointless arguments about what caused the problem but to get the person seen by their GP as quickly as possible to establish exactly is going on. This almost invariably points to causation, but crucially it makes sure that someone gets the correct attention first.
We think your best first step is to discuss the matter with your practitioner. It may simply be a matter of adapting the treatment to suit you better, perhaps by working away from the problem area or reducing the strength of treatment. If they cannot see any reason why what they have done could have caused these problems, then they will probably refer you to your GP for further examination.
We would say 'don't panic', though - we have known of very few cases where acupuncture treatment has caused serious long term adverse effects, and the majority of these have been to do with actual physical damage caused by the needles, not reactions to treatment itself. We hope you feel confident enough to talk to your practitioner about what has happened, and remind you that you are in charge in the treatment room, so if you are not happy with proceeding, then you can just draw a line straight away and stop.