Herniated Discs 101
Most have heard the term “herniated disc”, “bulging disc”, “blown disc”, etc., but you may not have a solid idea of what exactly is going on with this condition. Let me help.
Your spine is made up of a series of 24 irregularly shaped bones called vertebrae. Between each vertebrae are intervertebral discs that join the vertebrae to the level above and below it. These discs allow movement of the joint, act as shock absorbers, and have a consistency that can be likened to a jelly doughnut. When pressure or injury causes the “jelly” to start bubbling out, the condition is referred to as a herniated, bulging, or slipped disc. It can be a horrible condition with the herniation often pushing on nerves that come out of your spine and innervate the lower body, causing great pain in your back, buttocks, or leg. There are multiple non-surgical avenues that can be tried with acupuncture, chiropractics, and physical therapy being the more common choices.
I have had multiple clients that experienced great pain relief from acupuncture. While this was not always a long-term cure for the condition, it did allow them to start a strengthening program, which led to a stronger and healthier spine and thus surgery was avoided. I have never heard complaints of the acupuncture treatment itself being overly painful, so if you can get over fears of being a pin-cushion for a short time, this may be a legitimate treatment to pursue.
Chiropractics can make you feel better but without following up with a strengthening program, you will have to keep paying for visits to stay pain free. While some chiropractors encourage you to strengthen your back and be independent of their services, there are others that want to keep you coming back and will try to sell you “packages” of long-term treatments. There are also chiropractors that are “quacks” and do not use medically scientific protocols. Because of the very wide range of potential treatment plans, I feel you should interview a chiropractor first to see if you’re comfortable with their philosophy.
Physical therapy is generally a fairly conservative route to take. The goal of most therapists is to eventually say goodbye to you and not have you visiting them forever. The foundation of the treatment plan is stretching and strengthening, along with education of proper body mechanics. Sometimes therapists use an overly conservative approach where certain motions are to be avoided entirely. As these motions will inevitably be performed by the patients at some point in their daily activities, their avoidance is not only somewhat unrealistic but leads to weakness in these motions. With my clients, I utilize my education in physical therapy but apply a more “real world” approach and strengthen a person in safe functional movements. Overall, physical therapy is a great alternative to try in avoiding surgery and the one most commonly recommended by doctors.
You can probably see that strengthening is a common theme among all of the non-surgical options. When your muscles are strong and you use proper body mechanics, the burden is lifted off of weaker, injured, or overused parts of the spine. But I strongly caution you against starting up a strengthening program yourself or hiring a personal trainer unless they are very highly qualified in this field, as it is easily possible to make the condition worse. I encourage you to try all of the available options, while keeping an open mind to surgery, as it very well may be the only thing that will give you a pain free life back.