Can a Herniated Disc Heal On Its Own?
Updated: Aug 24
A herniated disc is a condition that can cause pain and numbness in the back, buttocks and legs. Many believe it is a lifelong issue that cannot get better with time. However, a large number of people suffering from this problem manage to achieve full recovery. So how favorable is the prognosis for herniated disc injuries?
What is a herniated disc? Vertebrae are 33 bones that form the spinal column. They are separated by discs that act as shock absorbers. When a disc moves out of its original position it is referred to as herniated disc. If a disc presses against a spinal nerve it can produce neurological symptoms (pain, numbness, reduced strength) in the limbs.
Back pain research has made strides over the past decade, helping us to debunk several myths about herniated discs. Here are a few key points about herniated discs:
1. Disc herniation does not always equal pain Several studies have compared the MRI of people with back pain with the MRI of pain-free individuals, and found no differences. Both groups presented disc changes such as degeneration, disc bulging and reduced disc height. This shows that a high percentage of asymptomatic adults have herniated discs, and is normal to have disc changes as we age. MRI should be reserved to patients presenting with neurological deficiencies or symptoms that might indicate a sinister condition, and not been conducted routinely for generic back pain.
2. In most cases herniated discs are not lifelong
Chances are, if you take an MRI today and you compare it to the one you took a few years ago which showed a herniated disc, it would look different. In fact, research shows that the rate of spontaneous regression is 96% for disc sequestration, 70% for disc extrusion, 41% for disc protrusion, and 13% for disc bulging. In other words, the worse the disc herniation, the greater the healing rate. Around 90% of the time pain caused by a herniated disc will go away on its own within 6 months.
3. Discs are robust structures that can sustain load
An episode of back pain triggered by a simple action, like bending forward or sneezing, can make us feel reluctant to engage in physical activities. Although it is advisable to take a period of rest as you recover from back pain, movement avoidance should not be implemented long term. In fact, a sedentary lifestyle can lead to deconditioned muscles which are more prone to strain. Therefore, once the pain has subsides, it is advisable to train your back muscles to make them more resilient to injuries. If the load applied is gradual, allowing for the discs to adapt, no symptom will then arise. To date, there is no evidence that any particular action or movement is a causative factor in disc herniation.
In summary, disc herniation has a more favorable prognosis than what we once thought. Current research about back pain can help patients having a better understanding of their condition. If you are not sure about what is causing your back pain, a physiotherapist can help you to assess your symptoms and advise you on the best course of action.
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