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Can acupuncture help with a limp

Q:  A nerve in my lower back does not seem to function resulting in a pronounced limp ( but no pain ).  I cannot get up onto my toes in the left foot. Can accupuncture help in this instance?

A: The crucial question here is what might have caused the nerve to function, and of course how precisely this has been diagnosed. We are assuming that you will have been seen by a neurologist, but if not it is very important that you see your GP and arrange an appointment to see one shortly. Any loss of sensation or muscular action needs to be investigated, not necessarily urgently (we don't want to sound alarmist) but certainly with reasonable haste to ensure that if there is any temporary impingement of a nerve the damage does not become more permanent through failure to get the appropriate treatment quickly.

On the assumption that the condition has been assessed by a specialist, the best we can say is that acupuncture treatment may help to restore some of the function, but there is very little evidence of research which would enable us to give even a partly qualified recommendation. If the nerve has been damaged in some way, then we have to be honest and say that acupuncture treatment will probably have no impact at all. The regeneration of nerve tissue in this part of the body is not as much as people might hope after injury, and once damage has occurred that is usually that.

That said, Chinese medicine is premised on an entirely different understanding of the body mind and emotions as a system of energy, called 'qi', in movement, and symptoms are understood in this context to be a result of some changes in the nature of the flow which affect the rhythm or balance of the energy. From this perspective, a weakness in a specific muscle set or loss of sensation would usually be seen as a deficiency of flow or a blockage, and the practitioner's skill would lie in working out how to reinstate the flow.

In some cases, such as the treatment of post-stroke patients, there is a growing body of evidence that the paralysis and muscle flaccidity which accompanies a stroke is significantly improved by acupuncture treatment, and in China patients are often given an intensive course of acupuncture treatment starting as soon as possible after the event. The point that we are making here is that from a conventional perspective this does not make sense, but clearly patients benefit, and the argument is that from the Chinese medicine perspective and understanding of strokes, something can be done. 

The same can be said of sciatica and other problems, such as osteoarthritis, which are diagnosed as being the result of changes in the lower spine causing impingement of nerves and pain. We have treated enough patients over the years whose X-rays show degenerative change but whose pain has been reduced to know that the causation accepted as 100% by conventional medicine need not be so clear, and that a percentage of these cases are amenable to acupuncture treatment because the pain arises from a different cause which ca be understood in Chinese medicine terms.

Our best advice is to visit a BAcC member local to you and ask if they can give you a better assessment based on a brief face to face interview about whether in their view acupuncture treatment may be of benefit. It is highly unlikely that this is the only symptom linked to a major physiological change, and they will also be able to assess using Chinese medicine techniques whether there is other evidence of energetic disturbance which may explain what is happening.

However, as we said, a great deal depends on whether your condition has been thoroughly investigated within conventional medicine, and what if any reasons were given as to why the problem occurred in the first place. Practitioners of all systems of medicine will ask the same generic questions - when did it start, was the onset gradual or sudden, what treatments and investigations have you had, what was happening at the time of the symptom appearing or shortly before, and so on - to make sense of what is happening. If you have the answers to these from your existing health practitioners it will inform what an acupuncture practitioner can advise you.