A herniated disc, also known as a ruptured or slipped disc, is a common source of back pain or neck pain. Disc herniation can also cause pain, weakness, and numbness in the arms and legs. Luckily, there are many treatments available to alleviate symptoms and prevent complications. Read on to discover more about treating a herniated disc in the back or neck.
Spinal discs are positioned in between each of the twenty-four individual bones (vertebrae) in the spine. Six are located in the neck (cervical region) and seventeen in the middle and lower back. The discs are like rubbery cushions that absorb shock, facilitate flexible spinal motion, and reduce friction between the bones.
Each of the twenty-three discs is made of two parts—a sturdy exterior and a soft interior. When one of the discs becomes damaged, its soft center spills out. This condition is referred to as a herniated disc.
The inner core of the disc contains inflammatory proteins that cause irritation to the disc wall, spinal cord, or nearby nerves. These proteins are the reason that a herniated disc injury causes pain, weakness, and other symptoms throughout the back and limbs.
Herniated Disc Causes
There are many reasons for disc herniation, including:
Normal Wear and Tear
Wear and tear is a natural part of the aging process and is the most common cause of a herniated disc. It results from a loss of water content in the discs, which makes them less flexible.
When discs become less flexible, they are more susceptible to injury caused by improper movement. For example, lifting with your back instead of your legs can lead to a herniated disc in the lower back.
Less commonly, you may get a herniated disc after a fall or blow to the back. Other traumatic injuries, such as whiplash, may cause a herniated disc in the neck.
Several factors increase your risk of getting a herniated disc, including:
Older adults are more likely to have weaker and less flexible spinal discs.
Family history. People with a close family member that suffered spinal problems have a greater risk of disc herniation.
Your job or hobbies. If you have a desk job that involves sitting for long periods, or you repeatedly carry out actions that put pressure on your back, you are more likely to experience tears in your spinal discs.
Being overweight. Carrying extra pounds puts more strain on the structures in the spine, including the discs. This is especially true if you carry most of your weight around your middle.
Poor diet. Just like the rest of the body, the spinal discs require adequate nutrition to stay healthy and supple.
Tobacco stops nutrients getting to the spine, as well as other areas of the body. It also contains toxins that affect the discs.
Herniated Disc Symptoms
Not everyone with a herniated disc experiences symptoms, but many do. One of the most common symptoms of a herniated disc is back pain (or neck pain in cases of cervical herniation).
Other signs of a herniated disc include:
Pain in the arms, shoulders, legs, or buttocks
Pain that gets more intense when coughing, sneezing, or moving
Numbness or tingling
Herniated Disc Diagnosis
To diagnose a herniated disc, your doctor will typically ask for a medical history before performing a physical examination. This involves:
Checking your back and neck for pain or tenderness
Asking you to move about in various ways
Watching you walk around to see your range of motion
Testing your reaction to pinpricks, vibrations, and other forms of touch
Checking your reflexes and muscle strength
If the doctor is unsure about the diagnosis, they may order:
X-rays, to check for other causes of back pain, such as a broken bone
CT scans, to check the structure of the spinal column
MRI scans, which can confirm the location of a herniated disc or nerve problems
Electromyograms, to test the function of nerves and discover the location of nerve damage
Herniated Disc Treatment
Once your doctor has pinpointed the cause and location of your damaged disc, they will choose a treatment program for herniated disc relief. Some of the most common herniated disc treatment options include:
Avoid Too Much Rest
Walking sticks are the perfect way to support your aching back, whether on a hike or casual stroll. ( See Product at Amazon )
While some rest is good, too much can hinder your recovery by contributing to weak muscles and stiff joints. Try to rest for just 30 minutes at a time before taking a short stroll. If you struggle to spend that much time on your feet, consider using walking sticks for added support.
Hot and Cold Therapy
A gel ice pack for necks is the best way to recover from uncomfortable spinal injuries. ( See Product at Amazon )
For quick pain relief, apply ice to the affected disc. If the disc is located in your neck, it can be more comfortable to use a special ice pack for necks. After the first 72 hours following injury, you can begin to alternate hot and cold therapy.
Support and stabilize your spine with a back brace for herniated discs. They are an ideal treatment for older adults who are experiencing disc degeneration, but anyone with disc problems can use them. Best of all, back braces are an inexpensive and much less invasive option when compared with surgery.
Get started with effective self-massage with this handy roller ball, which is small enough to fit in any bag. ( See Product at Amazon )
Massage therapy can alleviate your symptoms in the short-term. Get a professional massage or use a massage roller ball or peanut massage ball for a DIY treatment. However, you should avoid applying pressure to newly injured discs as it could exacerbate symptoms.
Those living with chronic back pain caused by natural disc degeneration may experience symptom relief through yoga. This ancient combination of movement, controlled breathing, and meditation improves flexibility and relieves stress. Learn more about the benefits of yoga for seniors.
Back pain that lasts for one month or more may benefit from chiropractic treatment. A chiropractor can manipulate the spine to improve alignment, reduce pressure on the discs, and alleviate pain. There are some risks associated with manipulating vertebrae in the neck, however, so you should always discuss the pros and cons of chiropractic care with a qualified professional before getting treatment.
Physical Therapy for Herniated Disc
A physical therapist can show you some of the best positions to minimize pressure on herniated discs. They can also devise an exercise regimen to reduce your symptoms, which may include the following:
Stand upright and place your hands behind your hips, with the fingers turned down. Press your hands into the pelvis to arch the lower back. Avoid using the back muscles to do this. Hold the position for a few seconds before returning your back to a neutral position. Repeat ten times, up to three times daily.
Chair squats are a type of chair exercise. To do a chair squat, begin by sitting in a chair. Slowly rise, over the course of five seconds, to a standing position. Keep your back straight throughout the movement. Slowly return to the seated position in the same manner. Repeat up to 30 times, twice daily.
Herniated Disc Pain Relief Medication
Over-the-counter pain medications may be enough to alleviate mild to moderate back or neck pain. Examples include ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) and naproxen (Aleve). If herniated disc pain is severe, your doctor may prescribe narcotics, anticonvulsants, oral steroids, or cortisone injections. Muscle relaxers can be taken to prevent muscle spasms caused by disc herniation. Keep your medications organized and within reach at all times with a portable pill case.
Herniated Disc Surgery
In rare cases, it may be necessary to undergo back surgery for a herniated disc. Surgical procedures are usually only performed on people with severe herniated discs or if other treatments do not alleviate symptoms after six weeks. Usually, surgery removes the damaged portion of the disc, but sometimes the entire disc must be taken out.
Herniated Disc Recovery
Most people will recover from a herniated and bulging disc within a few days or weeks if they use conservative treatments such as braces, ice therapy, and exercise. For those who have herniated disc surgery, recovery takes a little longer—usually about six weeks.
Disc herniation doesn’t usually cause complications, but you should seek urgent medical attention if you experience:
Severe symptoms that prevent you from carrying out your usual activities
Urinary or fecal incontinence, or difficulty urinating with a full bladder
Loss of sensation in the inner thighs, pelvic area, and back of the legs
Preventing a Herniated Disc
The following tips may help you prevent a herniated disc:
Engage in regular exercise, including stretching activities such as yoga or Pilates
Maintain proper posture through daily practice or by using a posture brace
Lift heavy objects using your leg muscles instead of your back
Achieve and maintain a healthy weight to avoid excess pressure on the spine
Eat a nutritious diet to ensure the spinal discs are nourished and supple
Finding Relief from a Herniated Disc
Having a herniated disc can be painful and restrictive, but you don’t have to live with it forever. Although there’s no instant herniated disc cure, you can enjoy relatively rapid relief by reducing pressure on your spine and treating symptoms. To fix a herniated disc, use back braces, neck supports, hot and cold therapy, and exercises. If you have severe disc herniation, you may need professional treatments or surgery to get you back on your feet.
Jessica Hegg is the content manager at ViveHealth.com. Avid gym-rat and nutrition enthusiast, she’s interested in all things related to staying active and living healthy lifestyle. Through her writing she works to share valuable information aimed at overcoming obstacles and improving the quality of life for others.
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