Q: My husband has had sciatica on and off over the past 2 years. He has had a lot if private physiotherapy and is under the GP for the pain. He is taking all sorts of strong painkillers. He had to go to A&E due to the amount of pain he was in. He has had an MRI scan and is waiting for the results but over the last 3 days he has been in agony. He seems to be taking lots of different painkillers without any effect on the pain. He is running out of options would acupuncture be of any help to him?
A:Our first advice would always be to see what the scan reveals before committing to treatment. Acupuncture treatment may be able to help relieve some of the pain he is in - this was, after all, one of the main effects of treatment which came to notice in the West and into which a great deal of encouraging research has been done - but if the scan reveals something more substantial either damaged or out of alignment this may well need sorting out by conventional means. Acupuncture may well be useful for pain relief while he awaits the next option, but may not be able to sort out the underlying problem.
However, we are quite used to being the treatment of last resort, and it is not uncommon for us to have patients who come to us with pains which defy explanation by all of the sophisticated testing now available. One of our first tasks is often to describe the basics of Chinese medicine to explain how pain can arise as a blockage in the energy of the body, called 'qi' by the Chinese, and how we set about resolving blockages. This can sometimes mean treating in the area where the pain is, but is almost invariably accompanied by treatment to help the body re-establish proper energetic flow and balance. This can sometimes mean needles a long way from the site of the pain, which can confuse patients, but from a Chinese medicine perspective most local symptoms, however extreme, are often an indicator that the body's ability to sort its own problems out is not functioning as well as it might, and treating the root as well as the branch is often necessary.
Sciatica is, in fact, one of the named conditions for which considerable research has been done, and although our factsheet is cautious in summarising the results of studies
it is one of the more frequent conditions for which people seek help from BAcC members, and anecdotally one which tends to respond well. It is certainly a condition which this expert approaches with some confidence. One of the great strengths of Chinese medicine is that it takes particular care to understand exactly how the problem manifests, and this means that each treatment is often unique to the individual, even though there are a few frequently used points for all cases. We tend to find that the term sciatica is used rather loosely in conventional medicine for a wide range of problems even in orthodox treatment, and we believe that the differentiation which we do as a matter of course can often pinpoint what is going on in a way which enables us to deal with the exact manifestation.
As always, our advice is to visit a BAcC member local to you for advice. Because the term sciatica is used as a catch-all for a number of problems, it is always best to see someone face to face who can give you a much more precise assessment of whether treatment may be beneficial. Most members are more than happy to give up 20 minutes without charge to ensure that if someone books in it is with a clear idea of the possible outcome and time scale for treatment.