Can Herniated Discs Heal Naturally?
A herniated disc is one of the leading causes of back pain and one you may be curious to know if it can be treated naturally at home. The condition happens when the nucleus of one or more of the cushioning discs between the vertebrae in your spine presses through the walls of the disc and compresses a nerve. According to New York City chiropractor Dr. Gerald M. Silverman, 57 percent percent of people over 60 and 20 percent under 60 have at least one herniated disc. If you’re someone living with a herniated disc, it can be debilitating and affect your quality of life. With surgery lurking in the back of your mind as a last resort, you’re likely wondering if there is a holistic solution—and there is.
Resorption of a Herniated Disc
Your body is designed to be self-protective. Consider what it does when you get a cut. As it recognizes damage to the skin, it rushes to prevent further injury by narrowing the blood vessels and clotting the wound. Your body releases chemicals and specialized cells to clean and nurture the affected area. New skin cells form to prevent infection and retain water. Next, skin cells and capillaries pump in oxygen and nutrients enabling the cells to make proteins. After 14 to 21 days, the new layer of skin grows stronger and after six months, it’s nearly as strong as it was pre-laceration.
In the same way, when you have a herniated disc, the jellylike material in the nucleus of your spinal disc is squeezed out from within its encasing within the disc. When this happens, the body initiates self-repair. The process is called disc resorption. During this process the body engages the escaped substance by signaling its natural healing process to break it down and reabsorb it. During this time, pain levels can spike and therapy is unlikely to speed up the process. For 80% of people with disc herniation, once resorption begins, they report less pain within six weeks. To manage your pain, your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatories or painkillers. If the pain is severe, you may be prescribed opioid-based medication.
Basic Symptoms of Disc Herniation
The lumbar spine (lower back) is where herniated discs often occur. They’re caused by a combination of poor nutrition, improper form, and repetitive faulty movement (i.e. incorrect bending and lifting). If you think you have herniated a disc, your symptoms may include:
Leg pain. When you have a herniated disc in your lower back, you’ll often feel it radiating through your buttocks and down your legs. Sciatica is typically a sign that you have a herniated disc in your lower back.
Numbness or tingling. Since herniated discs press against nerves in your spine, you may feel numbness or tingling in and around your lower back.
Muscle weakness. Since muscles and nerves work together, when you have a herniated disc, the weakness caused by the pressure against the nerve may cause you balance issues or affect your strength or grip.
For people suffering from a herniated disc, this is a best-case scenario that can provide pain relief, prevent the need for surgery, and is natural. The entire process of resorption can take anywhere from months to years. Dr. Philip Snell, a Portland, Oregon, chiropractor reported that MRI results revealed that “about 50% of patients see about 70% decrease in size of extruded material” after 6–12 months.
How to Treat a Herniated Disc at Home
Learning how to heal a herniated disc naturally is possible. The vast majority of people with a herniated disc do not require surgery, though some extreme cases may require outpatient treatment or surgery. As we eluded to in the last section, learning nutritional basics and keeping an eye on your movement is the first line of defense.
A strong immune system is vital to the resorption process. Eating the right foods, exercising regularly, and drinking plenty of water will help to keep it performing well. Smoking is strongly discouraged. It results in more severe pain, longer time for resorption, and slower reduction of symptoms.
Start eating whole foods that provide the nutrients that you need for a healthy back. The right combination of fats, oils, proteins, vitamins, and carbs found in diets like the Mediterranean diet or the Anti-Inflammatory Diet are a beneficial starting point. Nutrition alone will not heal a herniated disc, but ensuring that you learn to keep a healthy spine helps you to prevent further injury. When it comes to protein sources, Dr. Brendon Bradley of Bradley Chiropractic Nutrition Center in Bakersfield, California, recommends eating better quality meats.
“Many of the proteins that people eat are very low quality and packed with hormones and antibiotics. To get quality protein, people need to at the very least be eating all-natural, free-range meats. And if they have the resources and devotion, grass-fed, organic, wild-caught/pasture raised is always the best,” he says.
Ingesting more collagen—the most abundant protein in the body—can help our body heal and repair damaged disc and tissue. Whether choosing to add this nutrient through a supplement found in your natural foods store or vitamin shop, or through eating bone broth, chiropractor and clinical dietitian Dr. Josh Axe deems it a must.
“Drinking bone broth on a regular basis is the No. 1 dietary thing you can do,” he says. “You can make bone broth at home yourself or simply buy a liquid bone broth online and have it shipped to you frozen. You want to consume two to three servings a day — it’s an absolute must for herniated disc treatment.”
As the body continues the process of resorption, there are things you can do while the body is healing. While rest is important to healing, activity is encouraged. Inactivity can lead to joint stiffness, muscle weakness and lowered immunity. Any of those alone or in tandem can slow down disc resorption. In order to stay healthy without overdoing it, low impact exercises are best. Try the following:
- Swimming (or other aquatic therapy programs)
- Riding a recumbent stationary bike
The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons warns that any physical activity you perform with a herniated disc be slow and controlled, especially those involving bending and lifting.
Your doctor may recommend that you treat herniated disc pain using a combination of medication, muscle relaxants, and physical therapy. Exercise serves to strengthen your lower back, which supports much of your body’s weight and alleviates pressure on the spine. During physical therapy, your therapist will evaluate your condition and review your doctor’s notes. This will allow for a treatment designed specifically for you. Therapy may include massage, heat and cold therapy, electrical muscle stimulation, and stretching. Following a regimen by your therapist which includes exercising 30–45 minutes a day, helps you to manage herniated disc pain relief at home. According to Coast Physical Therapy, most people are able to relieve their pain from a herniated disc using medications and physical therapy, with improvements seen in about four to six weeks.
If Surgery Becomes Necessary
If the symptoms of your herniated disc can’t be resolved with nutrition and physical therapy, surgery may be necessary. This option should only be considered if your condition is severe. Though the procedure is minimally invasive and boasts a high success rate, the recovery process is long. Recovery can take up to six weeks and you may not return to full strength for up to one year. You will return to physical therapy during this time to work on strengthening your back muscles to further prevent herniated discs.
Explainer video on the degeneration process and ways disc degenerate.
Herniated discs can be treated naturally in the comfort of your home with proper nutrition, exercise, and therapy. Prevention is the best medicine and making sure that you learn to sit, bend, and lift properly can go a long way to making sure that you don’t develop new overuse or misuse injuries that can lead to additional herniated discs.