Herniated discs occur from an injury, commonly with improper and excessive lifting or it is a degenerative or age-related process. In both scenarios, the onset of pain is significant and at times renders patients incapable of doing anything. Some visit the emergency room, others sleep on the floor for nights in a row. A herniated disc can be devastating, especially if you are used to maintaining a high level of physical activity at work or in the gym.
It is important to know that herniated discs do in fact heal. The body is designed to repair the injured disc material and the pain will get better over time, as long as you allow nature to run its course.
What is a herniated disc?
An intervertebral disc is a spongy, cartilage filled part of your spine that lays between the harder vertebra bones. The vertebral bones serve to protect your nerves and spinal cord. There are 7 cervical (neck) 12 thoracic (torso) and 5 lumbar (low back) vertebrae and discs. The discs are designed to allow your spine to move and serve as shock absorbers of the spine. The disc is composed of a thicker, rubbery outer shell called the annulus and the inside is gel-filled and called the nucleus pulpous. In Latin, nucleus pulpous means center pulp, like an orange with the other shell and the inner softer fruit. Over time, the strength of the disc material can wear and if exposed to a certain level of stress, the disc can become injured and allow the inside pulp material to squeeze out and irritate the nearby nerves. When the pain shoots down the leg due to that nerve irritation, it is called sciatica. This inflammation caused by the herniation of the inner disc material is why this condition can cause debilitating pain.
Healing a herniated disc requires time to allow your body to heal. At Philly Smart Pain, our goal is to optimize the healing process and promote injury repair, and this focuses on three conditions:
The importance of movement is that it promotes blood flow to the injured area. With increased blood flow, the cells in your bloodstream are able to repair the tissue damage. Unfortunately, when you are in pain, the natural tendency is to avoid movement. For most patients, activity hurts, however, staying still and prolonged resting will actually slow the healing process. It also may weaken the muscles around the spine which then increases the chances of developing a muscle spasm when you eventually increase physical activity.
The second principle of core strengthening is important because building the muscles that support the spine helps distribute your body’s weight off of the spinal skeleton and sensitive disc. It is critical to increase the strength and flexibility of the abdominal, side, and back muscles to improve recovery. While there are many exercises that exist, we believe in creating personalized exercise plans for our patients.
The last condition of optimizing healing conditions focuses on improving posture. By improving the alignment of the spinal segments, your spine is better able to handle the stress load. Posture focuses on biomechanics, which is how your body’s structure influences function and movement, which enhances the healing process.
In Philly Smart Pain, we offer physical therapy that promotes movement, core strengthening, and postural education as part of our care. Yet, on many occasions, the pain caused by a herniated disc prevents patients from being able to perform the necessary work to move and exercise, which is exactly why we take a multidisciplinary approach to pain management. To support physical therapy, we offer many approaches to treating pain such as non-addictive pain medications, durable medical equipment, and most effectively injections, such as epidural steroid injections to reduce pain and inflammation and promote recovery from a herniated disc.
On rare occasions, a herniated disc can be very severe and even require emergency medical or surgical care. It is important to be under the care of a well-trained physician specialist, as is the case at Philly Smart Pain, to ensure that conservative care is safe and appropriate.