Some slipped disks don’t cause any symptoms, whereas others lead to severe back pain. A slipped disk in the lumbar region of the spine (the lower back) can press on the sciatic nerve and cause pain that often radiates down one leg and into the foot. Most people recover from a slipped disk within six weeks without treatment. Until then there are a number of treatment options that aim to help relieve the pain and improve mobility.
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Pain medication is one of the first non-surgical treatments for a herniated disc that doctors recommend to their patients. The two most common pain medications are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and steroids.
NSAIDS, such as ibuprofen, are popular painkillers around the world, but their long-term use is often associated with cardiovascular and gastrointestinal issues. For this reason, doctors sometimes hesitate to prescribe them for persistent symptoms. Steroids are another anti-inflammatory compound often used to address back pain. They can be administered orally or epidurally, but like NSAIDs, they have shown limited long-term benefit.
Physical therapy is another common way to address pain and discomfort caused by a herniated disc. Spine issues are often due to insufficient back muscle strength. For this reason, your doctor may prescribe physical therapy, which can strengthen your back muscles and reduce the strain on your spine. Physical therapy is typically more effective in the long term than pain medication.
An additional treatment for a herniated disc is an epidural injection. Much of the pain and discomfort caused by a herniated disc is due to inflammation and nerve irritation. For this reason, doctors sometimes inject steroids, which are strong anti-inflammatory compounds, directly into the affected area of the spine. The effectiveness of epidural injections depends on the patient, and they are often used in concert with other conservative treatments.
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Treatment methods based on traditional Asian medicine include:
Acute low back pain usually has no clear cause and goes away on its own after a few days. And even if a slipped disk is the root cause, your body will probably be able to deal with the problem on its own within six weeks. Most treatments will have a very small effect on the speed of recovery. Hot packs or massages might help you feel better. If you have severe pain, relaxing by getting into a position that reduces the strain on your back and taking anti-inflammatory drugs or local anesthetics can help relieve symptoms over the short term. But most of the work is usually done by the body itself.
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A herniated disc can lead to more severe complications which can turn into a chronic condition. If the pain starts to interfere with your daily activities, it is highly advised to seek a diagnosis and treatment recommendations from a spine specialist as soon as possible. An untreated, severe slipped disc can lead to permanent nerve damage. In very rare cases, a slipped disc can cut off nerve impulses to the cauda equina nerves in your lower back and legs. If this occurs, you may lose bowel or bladder control. Another long-term complication is known as saddle anesthesia.
Most of the time, pain associated with a herniated disc goes away on its own over a period of weeks or months and does not cause permanent damage to the spine or nerves. A herniated disc can occur in any part of the spine, but it is most common in the lower back (the lumbar spine) and the neck (the cervical spine). Usually a herniated disc will heal on its own over time. Be patient, and keep following your treatment plan. If your symptoms don’t get better in a few months, you may want to talk to your doctor about surgery.
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In general, though, when there is no nerve damage, the long-term outcome for surgical and non-surgical treatment is the same when measured two years after symptoms begin. Fortunately, most people with a herniated disk never get to the point that they need to see a specialist or have advanced testing. A herniated disc in the lower back will heal within six months, as the size of herniation shrinks with time via resorption. Surgery may be needed if medication, physical therapy and other treatments fail.
Recovery times vary from person to person. It depends in part on the extent of the problem and the type of treatment you’re using. For most people, medication or physical therapy will improve their symptoms within about 3 months.
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