Acupuncture Relieves Sciatic Pain – Changes Brain Functional Connectivity Related To Pain Relief

A 2012 study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that Acupuncture causes important changes in brain functional connectivity related to pain relief. 

The study also indicated that Acupuncture produces significant decreases in the frequency of sciatica pain and pain intensity.

MRIs showed that Acupuncture triggered changes in the functional state of the brain, providing patients with greater resting states.

A total of 10 Acupuncture treatments were received by the participants in the study: twice a day, three times a week for a little under 2 weeks.

Participants in the study all had pain consistent with chronic sciatica diagnostic criteria for over 3 months: radiating pain over the sciatic nerve innervation area (e.g. buttocks, posterior upper leg, posterior lateral lower leg, lateral top of the foot).

Researchers in the study determined that Acupuncture regulates the default mode network (DMN), which correlated to significant reductions in sciatica pain. 

The DMN is at its peak activity level when the brain is at rest and consists of a complex of  interconnected activated and deactivated brain regions. This research reported that sciatica pain disturbs the normal DMN pattern, and that Acupuncture was able to restore it.

“..(Acupuncture) raises negative activation in the brain’s default mode network (DMN) of chronic sciatica patients, especially in the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex.” (1)

The frontal cortex and cingulate cortex are involved in pain-related subjective cognition and perception, emotional responses, memory and attentional responses (2).

Raising negative activation in the DMN is associated with decreased pain, it is a form of functional connectivity present during the resting state of the brain (3).


  1. Li J, Dong JC, Le JJ, et al. Effects of acupuncture on default mode network images of chronic sciatica patients in the resting network state [J]. Chinese Journal of Integrated Traditional and Western Medicine, 2012, 32(12):1624-1627.
  2. Vogt BA, Derbyshire S, Jones AK. Pain processing in four regions of human cingulate cortex localized with co-registered PET and MR imaging [J]. Eur J Neurosci, 1996, 8 (7): 1461 – 1473.
  3. Raichle ME, MacLeod AM, Snyder AZ, et al. A default mode of brain function[J]. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 2001, 98(2): 676 – 682.

Doctors Advised to Refer Low Back Pain Patients for Acupuncture

For patients with acute or sub-acute low back pain Medical Doctors have been advised not to prescribe potentially harmful drugs or expensive, unnecessary tests wherever possible and to refer patients for non-drug therapies including Acupuncture 1.

Acupuncture is one of a small handful of treatments that have been recommended as part of the evidence-based clinical practice guideline published in February 2017 by the American College of Physicians.

The American College of Physicians is a highly esteemed and influential medical body in the USA, whose medical model Australia follows very closely.

Low back pain happens to be one of the most common reasons behind visits to Medical Doctors. Approximately 25% of the population report having experienced low back pain recently and it can be a debilitating condition that severely decreases quality of life.

According to the president of the ACP “Physicians should avoid prescribing unnecessary tests and costly and potentially harmful drugs, especially narcotics, for these patients.”

The ACP recommends Medical Doctors first refer patients for non-drug therapy, including Acupuncture, spinal manipulation, mindfulness-based stress reduction and even motor control exercise. Movement based activities such as tai chi and yoga could be beneficial also.

The guidelines also showed that systemic steroids were ineffective at treating low back pain, as was the commonly prescribed medication acetaminophen.

Opioid-based pain killers (narcotics) are advised as a last resort. This recommendation is likely related to the Centre for Disease Control’s declaration that opioid-based pain killers have become an “epidemic” and that the number of deaths associated with these drugs and risk of addiction is too high.

The ACPs guidelines reflect a growing body of evidence in support of Acupuncture for pain management due to its effectiveness and safety.

Dr Scott Baker is a registered acupuncturist practicing in Burleigh Waters, Gold Coast. To find out if he may be able to assist with pain, fertility, digestion, hormones, sinus, allergies or other conditions call and book a consultation today or book online at

Allied Acupuncture Gold Coast, 2 Executive Drive, Burleigh Waters. 07 5522 1691.Qaseem A, Wilt TJ, McLean RM, Forciea MA, for the Clinical Guidelines Committee of the American College of Physicians. Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians. Ann Intern Med. 2017;166:514-530. doi: 10.7326/M16-2367