Many patients who hear a diagnosis of a herniated disc immediately question whether spinal surgery is in their future. Whether or not surgery is the right option should be discussed with your doctor. However, most patients can find back pain relief by opting for more conservative treatments.
The most common school of thought on treating herniated discs focuses on treating pain. Anti-inflammatory drugs, cortisone injections, hot packs, ultrasound and therapeutic exercises fall in this category.
While pain relief is important, the weakness of this approach is that it fails to address the underlying cause of the herniated disc: why did it herniate in the first place? Ignoring the cause leads to repeated doctor visits for pain treatment. As pain worsens over time, surgery becomes a presented option.
An alternative approach is to understand the reason for the herniation and correct the problem; not to just mask the symptoms with painkillers.
Why a disc herniates
Herniated discs don’t happen overnight (except in the case of trauma). They occur from long-term uneven pressure on the disc due to postural dysfunctions caused by muscle imbalances.
Think of a jelly doughnut. If you put a lot of pressure on one side and less on the other, the jelly is likely to bulge out at the opposite side of the pressure. With enough pressure, the jelly will break through the doughnut. On the other hand, if the same amount of pressure were placed evenly across the entire doughnut the jelly might compress, but would probably stay intact inside the doughnut.
Similarly, when muscle imbalances create improper hip and spine posture, the spinal discs between the vertebrae are unnaturally forced to sustain more weight and stress on one side than the other. Eventually the disc wears down, leading to a bulging, herniated or even a ruptured disc.
Non-surgical alternative treatments for herniated discs
There are a few actions one can take at home to help treat and reduce back pain from a herniated disc:
- Reduce inflammation by increasing fluid intake and improving eating habits.
- Stop pain spasms by improved blood flow and increased range of motion with heat and cold therapy.
- Decompress the disc using inversion therapy.
- Eliminate referred pain caused by trigger points which are a form of tiny muscular contraction knots.
- Correct postural dysfunctions through stretching and exercise targeting specific muscle imbalances to eliminate the underlying root cause of your disc herniation.
Reviewed by Dr Pradeep Makan, orthopaedic surgeon, Melomed Gatesville and Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town and part-time lecturer in the department of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Cape Town, 2010.