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Categories > Muscles and Joints > Back and neck pain

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Living with herniated disks
Treatment and relief options

What’s a herniated disk?

Your spinal, or intervertebral, disks act as cushions or shock absorbers between the vertebrae or bones of your spine. Disks are made up of a tough outer ring of fibrous tissue filled with a jellylike substance. When a disk swells, bulges, tears or ruptures (herniates)—caused by injury or aging—it presses on nearby nerves, causing back, neck, arm or leg pain.

Herniated disks, slipped disks, ruptured disks—by any name, they make life difficult and painful, affecting your ability to work, sleep, exercise and even sit. Most commonly, herniated disks occur in the lower back, or lumbar section of the spine, but they can also occur in the neck’s cervical disks.

Although it may feel like the pain is causing long-term damage, it probably isn’t. In fact, doctors often suggest waiting six months before considering surgery because the portion of the disk that bulges typically shrinks over time, diminishing pain. Experts estimate between 80 percent and 90 percent of people with a herniated lumbar disk improve and return to normal activities without aggressive treatment. Your healthcare provider may suggest you first try nonsurgical treatments to ease discomfort and improve function, such as:

  • Pain management. Over-the-counter or prescription medications such as pain relievers, muscle relaxants, corticosteroids (injections or pills), antidepressants or epidural injections can help.
  • Heat-and-cold therapy. Alternate applying cold and hot packs for 15 minutes at a time and note if one helps more than the other. However, avoid heat within the first 48 hours of the pain’s onset because it can aggravate swelling.
  • Water workouts. Gentle exercise in a pool may aid relaxation and help maintain mobility.
  • Physical supports. A firm mattress and wearing a back brace or neck collar may ease some of the disk’s pressure on the nerves. Although bracing can help you maintain good posture and alignment during everyday activities, consider it a temporary solution since it can lead to weaker abdominal and back muscles.
  • Exercise. Strengthening your back and abdominal muscles to better support and stabilize your spine can help relieve pain. Ask your provider or physical therapist for guidance about how to avoid reinjury.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). This method delivers tiny electrical currents to key points on a nerve pathway. TENS may offer relief by stimulating pain-blocking endorphins or blocking pain impulses.

If you have severe, debilitating pain or your pain hasn’t lessened over time, your provider may suggest a surgical treatment. Your options may include removing a portion or all of the affected disk or a part of the bone to relieve pain and pressure on your nerves.


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