What Is Spinal Disc Herniation?
A herniated disc refers to a rupture in one of the rubbery cushions (spinal discs) that sit between the vertebral bones of your spinal column.
A spinal disc has a thick, spongy exterior (annulus) with a delicate, jelly-like core (nucleus). A herniated disc — also called a ruptured or slipped disc — occurs when some of the soft nucleus is squeezed out into the annulus as the result of a tear.
A herniated disc can occur in any part of the spinal column, and it can result in acute and referred pain, numbness, or weakness in the spine or an arm or leg, depending on where the herniated disc is located. Many people, however, report no symptoms at all.
Surgery is not always necessary to treat a spinal disc herniation. With the proper treatment plan, a full recovery is possible.
What Are The Symptoms of a Herniated Disc?
Although most herniated discs occur in the lower back, they might also occur in the neck. Symptoms depend on the position of the disc in the spinal column, and whether or not the disc is rubbing up against a nerve. Usually, symptoms only affect one side of the body. It’s also possible to have a herniated disc without any symptoms at all.
The most commonly reported symptoms of spinal disc herniation are:
- Tingling sensations or radiating numbness. People who have a herniated disc often report these sensations in the body parts affected by the nerves aggravated by the herniated disc.
- Weakness. Muscles that have been weakened by the affected nerves may impact your ability to hold or lift items, and you might lose your balance.
- Arm or leg pain. If your herniated disc is in your neck, you might feel soreness in your arm and shoulder. If it’s in your lower back, you’ll tend to feel it in your thigh, calf, and buttocks. If you cough, sneeze or move into certain positions, this pain might shoot up and down your arm or leg. The sensation is often described as a burning or sharp pain.
What Can Cause Herniated Discs?
Although many people can’t pinpoint the exact cause of their spinal disc herniation, it’s often caused by lifting heavy objects or strenuous exertion. Sometimes, it can be the result of a violent impact, such as a sports or work-related injury. Gradual, age-related wear and tear of the spinal discs (also known as disc degeneration) can also be a common factor in disc herniation.
Other Risk Factors
Your risk of developing spinal disc herniation increases with the following circumstances:
- Genetics. Some people inherit a genetic disposition to herniated discs.
- Occupation. Pushing, pulling, twisting, bending sideways and repetitive lifting put people with physically demanding jobs at a greater risk of disc herniation. Sitting at a desk for long periods of time can cause spinal disc degeneration as well.
- Weight. Being overweight puts a strain on the discs in your lower back.
- Smoking. Tobacco use is thought to diminish the supply of oxygen to the spinal discs, causing them to break down faster than they normally would.
How Can Chiropractic Treatments Help?
Chiropractic treatments can help alleviate back pain and other symptoms of spinal disc herniation. Your chiropractor will go over your medical history at your initial appointment. Then, they will carry out a physical exam, and conduct neurological and orthopedic tests.
During the exam, your chiropractor will be on the lookout for several things:
- Reflexes. Are your reflexes functioning as they should?
- Loss of strength. Does there seem to be a loss of muscle strength?
- Muscle wasting. Are there signs of muscle wasting?
- Numbness. Is there reduced sensation along a nerve path?
Your chiropractor will carefully evaluate your posture. They will also examine your entire spine — not just the affected part — to see how well everything is functioning as a whole. What happens in one part of the spine can affect other parts of it, as well as other areas of your body.
Your chiropractor might also order an X-Ray or MRI to aid in the diagnostic process, if necessary.
Once your chiropractor has reviewed all of this information, he or she can give you a diagnosis. If it’s discovered that you have a herniated disc, the good news is that pain and other symptoms caused by most intervertebral disc injuries respond positively to chiropractic treatment.
What Chiropractic Techniques Are Used to Treat Spinal Disc Herniation?
Your chiropractor will come up with an individualized treatment plan based on your pain levels, how active you are, and your overall health.
Here are a few examples of chiropractic techniques used to treat the symptoms of a herniated disc:
This pain-free technique involves the use of a special table that “distracts”, or stretches, your spine. Your chiropractor can then isolate the affected area by gently “flexing” the spine to allow the nucleus of the disc to return to its central position. This technique can also shift the disc away from nerve endings, reducing inflammation and ideally the pain associated with it.
Flexion-distraction is often used in conjunction with other treatments, such as muscle stimulation, nutritional recommendations, physical therapy, ultrasound, and eventually at-home exercises.
Pelvic Blocking Techniques
This treatment involves using wedge-shaped cushions, which are placed under either side of the pelvis. With gentle exercises, the disc is drawn away from the nerve it might be pressing on.
Manipulation Under Anesthesia (or MUA)
This technique is performed while the patient is under a twilight sleep, which is a very short sedation period of about six minutes. While the patient is under anesthesia and in a relaxed state, the chiropractor manipulates and stretches the affected area. This is usually accomplished in one to three sessions, two to four weeks apart.
Traction & Spinal Decompression
Other techniques for spinal decompression (aka traction) may also be used to alleviate pressure and tension in the spine. Most treatment plans will incorporate some combination of traction/decompression, distraction, manipulation, some other form of complementary treatment to provide complete disc regeneration.
Common Misconceptions about Chiropractic Treatments for Herniated Discs
- Chiropractic care for disc herniation isn’t a “quick fix”. It’s implemented slowly over time, with gentle techniques.
- Chiropractors don’t “pop” discs back in place by force. If there’s a popping sound during an adjustment, it’s gas under pressure being released from within a joint, similar to opening a soda bottle.
- Spinal disc herniation treatment plans aren’t painful. There can be some pain or discomfort but no more than you feel while suffering from a bulging disc. Patients often leave their treatments feeling better than when they arrived.
Preventing Herniated Discs
Here are a few things you can do to lower your risk of spinal disc herniation:
- Maintain good posture. Make sure you’re keeping your back straight and your spine aligned, especially if you’re sitting down for long periods. This will reduce strain on your spine and discs.
- Lift heavy objects properly. Make sure your legs, and not your back, are doing most of the work. Keep your back straight and tight while lifting. Bending your back while lifting heavy objects increases the risk for putting extra stress on the discs of your spine.
- Strengthen your core. Strong abdominal, oblique, back, and glute muscles help stabilize and support your spine. Include resistance training exercises that target your core in your workouts to improve core strength.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight puts more pressure on your spine and discs, making them more prone to herniation.
- Quit smoking. Avoid all tobacco products, both for the health of your spine and for your overall wellbeing.
Complementary Treatments in Addition to Chiropractic Care
It’s important to bear in mind that complementary treatments are most effective when used in conjunction with chiropractic care. Before starting any new or additional treatment program, let your practitioner know if you have any health conditions apart from your herniated disc pain.
Physical therapy can play an important role in your recovery from a herniated disc. Not only can it instantly relieve pain, but it also helps condition your body to avoid further injury.
Your physical therapist will work with you to develop a suitable treatment plan based on your needs. Your treatment plan will usually begin with passive treatments, which include hot and cold therapy, hydrotherapy, electrical stimulation, and deep tissue massage. Once you’ve healed a bit, you’ll begin active treatments to strengthen your body and prevent further symptoms.
Here are a few examples of active treatments used in physical therapy:
- Flexing and Stretching Exercises. Flexing and stretching help ward off stiffness, allowing your body to perform a wider variety of activities. These exercises also prepare your muscles for strength and aerobic workouts.
- Core Stability Exercises. Strong abdominal muscles are vital to the health of your spine and discs. Your core muscles help the muscles in your back to support your spinal column. Weak core muscles can result in improper posture, which forces your back muscles to work extra hard to support your spine. This can result in pain and injury.
- Muscle Strengthening Exercises. The stronger your muscles are, the more they’ll be able to support your back.
- Hydrotherapy. Passive hydrotherapy involves sitting in a warm bath or hot tub. Active hydrotherapy, on the other hand, might involve swimming or water aerobics. Your body’s weightlessness in the water will help you avoid further straining your spine as you exercise.
Your physical therapist might also teach you the principles of self-care so you can treat your symptoms on your own, and continue to enjoy a pain-free lifestyle.
It’s important to work the techniques you learned into your daily routine after your physical therapy ends. Maintaining an exercise routine and staying active will have long term positive effects on your health, and will prevent your symptoms from recurring.
Acupuncture is a key component of ancient Chinese medicine, grounded in the belief that everyone has an energy force called Chi (pronounced chee). According to the tradition, your body will respond with pain and illness if your Chi is blocked or unbalanced. Your acupuncturist aims to free up your Chi channels (also known as meridians) by inserting multiple tiny needles into specific points on the body. These needles are left in for about 20 to 40 minutes. Acupuncture isn’t for everyone. Aside from the potential energy healing benefits, it can also have a positive therapeutic relaxing effect and improve blood flow to the treated areas.
Some theorists suggest that acupuncture releases endorphins, or “feel-good” chemicals that reduce the perception of pain, into the bloodstream.
Acupuncture is also backed by the Gate Control Theory, which asserts that pain travels slowly to the brain because your nerves can only perceive so many signals at once. Acupuncture is believed to speed up non-painful nerve signals, which crowd out the more sluggish pain signals before they can reach your brain.
While massage is not a proven treatment for spinal disc herniation, it can be beneficial in the treatment of the associated symptoms. Massage eases tension in the muscles surrounding the spine, reducing pressure and compression on the disc. It also helps increase blood flow in the affected area, which can help prevent further disc degeneration.
While suffering from the pain associated with a herniated disc you may develop imbalances and tightness in your back muscles. Massage can help alleviate tension and tertiary issues associated with a bulging or herniated disc.
Talk to your chiropractor before you begin massage therapy to ensure that you don’t aggravate your condition. Once you’ve gotten the go-ahead, let your massage therapist know the location of your herniated disc. Make sure you tell your therapist immediately if they’re doing anything that causes pain during the massage.
Although you may feel relief after just one session, don’t expect to be pain-free from that point forward. Usually, you’ll need several sessions before you notice a significant difference.
There are several treatment methods for relieving the pain and discomfort of herniated discs. Our approach may vary based on several factors. If you’re suffering from back pain, discomfort, numbness or tingling sensations in your limbs you may have a herniated disc in your spine. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.