If you have a herniated disc, you’re probably concerned about two things in particular:
- You want to ease the pain.
- You want to avoid back surgery at all costs.
And that’s a good thing—if there’s a viable alternative, you should take it. And if you’re wondering how to avoid surgery for a herniated disc in particular, the good news is this: You probably won’t need it anyway.
How To Avoid Surgery For A Herniated Disc
The best way to avoid surgery is to simply wait. Any herniated disc that hasn’t markedly improved after a few months will most likely need surgical intervention, but studies have shown that most patients gradually recover from a herniated disc on their own, without surgery, over the course of several weeks to a couple of months.
When anyone suffers a herniated disc, one of two things happen: Either the disc continues to get worse—which could happen in a matter of minutes or more slowly over time, accompanied by a high level of pain; or, it gradually improves, with pain smoldering at a moderately low level over a period of several weeks, and possibly flaring up during periods of high activity.
How does improvement happen? It’s not entirely clear, but there is evidence that the body has some ability to repair itself. In a herniated disc, the inner layers of the disc push out past the weak outer layer. The chemical properties of the inner part of the disc are different than the outer part, making it much more irritating to the surrounding nerves. Once that inner part reaches into the spinal canal, the nerve becomes irritated and inflamed, which in turn causes pain. But that same inflammation is the body’s attempt to address the problem—which it does by slowly absorbing and breaking down a portion of the disc.
How will you know if a herniated disc is likely to heal?
While waiting is a good first response, you shouldn’t wait indefinitely. Studies show that about 80% of herniated disc cases resolve themselves within approximately six weeks.
Does that mean six weeks is the magic number? Not necessarily, because it’s not an exact science. In general, doctors tend to wait out the six-week window by following a patient’s progress through the first few weeks closely. In fact, it’s normal for a doctor to wait anywhere from six weeks to four months before considering back surgery. If the condition appears to be improving slightly at two to three weeks, there’s a high probability that it will resolve on its own. During the six-week period of gradual improvement, there are things you can do to alleviate the pain, like medication, physical therapy, and injection therapy.
But if the pain hasn’t subsided after two weeks—and certainly if it hasn’t subsided after six to eight weeks—you and your doctor should discuss your options. Although many patients do get better naturally, for some, the question of how to avoid back surgery for a herniated disc is no longer relevant. Surgery simply may be the only option for getting back to their normal activities without experiencing overwhelming pain.
… you’re not alone! (I had surgery for a herniated disc myself.) A microdiscectomy is the typical course of action for a first-time, isolated herniated disc, where a surgeon removes a small portion of the problematic disc that’s pressing on a nearby nerve. It’s a minor procedure and you’ll go home the same day. For a relatively healthy person with an isolated herniated disc, a microdiscectomy rarely poses a problem.
The problem arises when surgery is required a second and sometimes third time for recurrent disc herniation. The result of too many multiple recurrent herniated disc treatments is that, eventually, you will lose too much of the disc. Once you’ve lost more than 25 or 30% of your disc, you’re at risk of spinal instability. Or, your herniated disc might be associated with spondylolisthesis, which also negatively impacts the stability of your spine. In that case, the right question to ask is how to avoid spinal fusion surgery.
If you’re considering surgery to treat back or leg pain, use this free guide to make sure you’re getting the right type of surgery for your condition.
Spinal fusion removes an entire joint in your spine, which in turn creates a number of problems, including loss of motion, unnatural posture either sitting or standing, and increased stress on the remaining joints of your spine. An alternative is the BalancedBack® Total Joint Replacement.
BalancedBack® restores the function of the disc and facet. So not only does this procedure address your problematic disc, it also preserves movement in your spine, adapts to your posture, and controls motion. The new, productive joint moves naturally—as do the levels above and below it—and maintains the natural curve of the spine, so you’re comfortable in any position.
I do recommend that you avoid back surgery at all costs—but that’s not always possible. If you’re struggling with a recurrent herniated disc and want to know more about BalancedBack® Total Joint Replacement, visit our website or schedule a complimentary call with our clinical coordinator.