A herniated disc is a condition in which the soft, inner portion of your intervertebral disc bulges out of its casing. This dislocation can cause pain and discomfort, either by directly compressing nearby nerves or by releasing inflammatory chemicals. Disc herniations typically occur either in the cervical or lumbar regions of the spinal cord, but herniated lumbar discs are more common. Some patients who endure this kind of pain and discomfort may simply try to tolerate it, but for many, especially those with active lifestyles, it becomes necessary to seek help from a doctor.
The spine is a complicated structure, so many patients may not be sure how to treat a herniated disc. Fortunately, the medical community has a good understanding of the condition’s cause and how to resolve it. Being diagnosed with a herniated disc may feel like a serious blow to your lifestyle, but rest assured that there are many effective ways to treat it. If you’ve had an MRI and a confirmed diagnosis, read on for some of the most common methods for treating herniated discs so that you can learn more about your issue and how to resolve it.
Back pain caused by a herniated disc is often addressed by way of trial-and-error. When considering how to treat a herniated disc, your doctor will start with more conservative methods and progress as needed. Here are some common first choices for treatment.
Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)
NSAIDs like ibuprofen are popular painkillers worldwide, and they’ve brought relief to many people with herniated discs. One concern, however, is that their long-term use may be associated with cardiovascular and gastrointestinal complications. As a result, doctors may avoid prescribing them for persistent back pain.
Oral or Epidural Steroids
Steroids are anti-inflammatory compounds commonly used to relieve pain. Your doctor may prescribe steroids to be administered either orally or by an epidural injection. This method of treatment is often successful in reducing or eliminating pain in the short-term but has not been proven effective in the long-term. So, like NSAIDs, they may not be best for those with persistent, physically limiting pain.
Physical therapy is a conservative treatment that has demonstrated more long-term success than NSAIDs or steroids. When a doctor prescribes physical therapy for a herniated disc, his or her goal is to address the mechanical issues that may be causing or exacerbating your pain. This can involve massage, electrical stimulation or exercise, which can strengthen the back muscles that support the affected area of the spine.
Similar to physical therapy, spinal manipulation is a series of techniques used to correct mechanical spine issues. During spinal manipulation, which is typically performed by a chiropractor, your spine will be shifted into a variety of positions that are intended to improve your range of motion and reduce your pain.
Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery
If conservative treatments don’t bring you the results you seek, you should consider minimally invasive spine surgery. In the past, spine operations were often serious setbacks, with only modest rates of success and long recovery times. Now, due to improved surgical technology, herniated discs can be addressed quickly and precisely with minimally invasive spine surgery, causing you less pain and allowing for an accelerated return to activity.
Minimally invasive spine surgery is a set of techniques used to resolve a range of conditions, from mechanical issues to tumors, all while minimizing the damage to healthy tissue. If you and your doctor decide that this type of surgery is the best option, you will need to undergo a scan before the procedure — an MRI, CT scan or X-ray, depending on your surgeon’s needs — so that your surgeon can pinpoint the exact location of your pathology and plan a course of action.
Once the preparations are made and you are safely under anesthesia, the surgery itself will begin with what is known as dilation technology. Dilation technology allows the surgeon to move aside, rather than cut through, the muscles that cover your spine. This way, the surgeon can avoid unnecessary damage to your healthy tissue, thus reducing your pain and facilitating the healing process. After using dilation technology to reach the site of the herniation, your surgeon may then use a microscope or a fiber optic tube with a light and a lens, known as an endoscope, to view the spine during the operation.
After the surgeon has physical and visual access to the herniated disc, he or she will begin the protocol, which is usually a microdiscectomy. A microdiscectomy involves the removal of the herniated portion of your disc. This can lessen the pressure on your nerve, reduce the release of inflammatory compounds and ultimately relieve your pain. Many patients wake up after the surgery and report immediate pain reduction. In addition, minimally invasive spine surgery patients can go home the day of the operation if they meet certain benchmarks (such as walking, urinating, etc.), whereas open surgery results in longer average hospital stays.
In the few weeks that follow your surgery, your doctors will likely recommend physical therapy. This, combined with proper rest, should allow you to heal, recover your strength and return to your active lifestyle.
A herniated disc can be a setback, but if you find the right treatment, you won’t be on the sidelines for long. While you think about how to treat a herniated disc, consider which treatment would best suit your lifestyle and most effectively bring about relief. You can use this guide as a resource as you talk with your doctor about your options.