Acupuncture Beats Pharmaceuticals for Sciatica Pain
As many as four out of ten of us will experience sciatica at some point in our lives. Sciatica typically results in intense to chronic pain, tingling and even numbness that travels down the legs and feet.
This is typically thought to involve an entrapment or impingement of some part of the nerves along the spine – often in the lumbar region. When nerve roots are impinged, they become irritated and this can radiate pain down the legs, even to the feet and toes.
There are several potential causes for this, and depending upon the precise cause, there are a myriad of different recommendations that come from the different fields of medicine.
One of the standard courses of treatment from conventional medicine is the prescriptive treatment of NSAID drugs. These can range from aspirin and acetaminophen-based drugs to narcotic pain medications, depending upon the case, the doctor and the level of pain.
Yet as we’ve discussed in other articles, NSAIDs and narcotics also come with a variety of adverse effects. One of the worst of these is gastrointestinal issues, which can include ulcers, nausea, intestinal cramping and others.
It is for this reason that COX-2 drugs were developed: To somehow sidestep the gastrointestinal issues that are common among NSAIDs.
But research over a decade ago also proved that COX-2 NSAIDs increase the risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attacks. This has left conventional science in a conundrum: Medicate at the risk of serious side effects.
That is, assuming there is no alternatives: Which there are.
Sciatica treated successfully by acupuncture
A new study from the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences has analyzed twelve years of research in using acupuncture on sciatica. The researchers analyzed 49 scientific studies that investigated acupuncture on sciatica. From these, they eliminated all those studies that did not have the tightest of protocols, and ended up with 11 randomized and controlled studies. The studies included a total of 962 patients.
All the studies utilized pain as a standard of measurement. The various studies approached the topic of control from different angles. Many compared acupuncture to medication treatment alone. Some used sham acupuncture. A few compared acupuncture alone to drugs alone, and then acupuncture plus drugs.
The research found overwhelmingly that acupuncture treatments resulted in less pain than drug treatments.
Among the treatments, six of the studies utilized electroacupuncture, three of them utilized warming acupuncture and two of the studies utilized manually inserted needle acupuncture.
The number of acupuncture points also varied between the studies. One study utilized only one acupoint, while others used more than 10 acupoints. The most-used acupoints were GB-32 (Huantiao), BL-40 (Weizhong), EX-B2 (Jiaji) and GB-34 (Yanglingquan). The study that used one acupoint used EX-B2. Two studies used two points: They both used GB-30 (Huantiao) and BL-40.
Most of the studies ranged from one week of treatment to four weeks. Most of the treatments were either once daily or twice daily or three or four times a week. A number of them were only for ten days. The patient ages ranged from 18 years old to 79 years old.
Acupuncture significantly better than drugs
The drugs tested against and/or with acupuncture included diclofenac, nimesulide, ibuprofen, meloxicam and ibuprofen plus prednisone. In all of these studies, acupuncture proved to reduce pain more than the medication alone. And in those studies that included a group that received both acupuncture with medication, the acupuncture plus medication group had more significant pain reduction.
The success of the acupuncture treatments in the studies were significantly better than the success of the medications. Examples include a sampling of VAS (lower pain) scores, 2.78 versus 4.64; 3.04 versus 4.28 and 4.87 versus 5.87. In terms of response rates (significant pain reduction), percentages included 90% versus 73%; 83.3% versus 70%; 86% versus 75%; 94% versus 80%; 83% versus 70% and 100% versus 83.3%.
The number of adverse effects also indicated the advantage of the acupuncture treatments. Among all of the studies, there were only three adverse effects from acupuncture, which were mostly skin irritation from the needles. But in the medication groups, there were 21 reportings of severe side effects from the NSAID treatment.
These of course are the short-term reports. Most of the studies were short in duration and thus didn’t have long enough to measure the real effects of longer-term medicating with NSAIDs.
Acupuncture for immediate pain
Acupuncture has been used to quell pain for thousands of years. It is used not just among Chinese medicine, but also among Japanese Kampo and Thai treatments. This history of treatment has provided a wealth of clinical experience. Sure, our modern researchers are able to study a few hundred people here and there. But acupuncture has been used successfully among billions of people who have experienced pain.
In more recent years, Western medicine has rediscovered acupuncture to relieve both immediate and chronic pain. It is now used as an adjunctive treatment after and before surgery, in cancer, heart disease and many other surprising cases.
Chinese acupuncturists receive significant training and though they have different names and approaches from Western medicine, their treatments are typically reasonably priced.
M, Wang X, Chen M, Shen Y, Zhang X, Yang J. The Efficacy of Acupuncture for the Treatment of Sciatica: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2015;2015:192808. doi: 10.1155/2015/192808.