Disc bulges, or herniations, come in a variety of presentations. They usually are limited to the lower lumbar spine (L3/4 to L5/S1) and the neck (C4/5-C7/T1). In taking the medical history of patients suffering from disc bulges, there is usually a history of a sedentary office job that requires sitting long hours; a previous injury like a sports, work, or car accident injury; and in rare cases, no significant event or habit that could explain how the disc bulge occurred. In fact, there are studies that indicate that degenerative disc disease, which can include varying degrees of disc bulging, can be hereditary.
A common theoretical model for degenerative discs goes like this: something happens that causes the disc to bear excessive weight, which over time forces fluid out of the disc causing it to dessicate. The outer fibers responsible for keeping the disc intact and the nucleus in place weaken, allowing the center nucleus to bulge outwards. Chiropractors often attribute this scenario to subtle misalignments in the vertebrae caused by minor trauma, prolonged sitting and insufficient support from the abdominal muscles and lumbar muscles. Normally the disc should support 80% of the weight above it and the facet joints (the smaller joints behind the disc) about 20%. But if a physical event changes the orientation of the vertebra, it can force the disc to support 90-100% of the weight, accelerating its demise.
Other models reference calcification of the vertebral end plates,the surfaces of the vertebrae above and below the disc, which then prohibits capillaries from feeding nutrients to the disc causing it to die. Bone calcifies in response to trauma; vertebral end plates can sustain “micro-compression” injuries from activities that place a heavy, axial load (perpendicular) to the disc. Examples include basketball, gymnastics, running, and parachuting.
An acute herniated disc can be extremely debilitating, as it tends to last a lot longer than a typical sprain/strain injury. It hurts, limits movement, can make sleep difficult and restricts you from work and physical activity. If it presses on a nerve root it can send shooting pains down the buttock and leg and cause numbness and weakness. The general recommendation for most cases of non-emergency disc herniations is to manage the pain using physiotherapy (ice, heat, muscle stim, laser), do physical therapy including stretching and strengthening exercises and wait for the disc bulge to self-resolve in 2-3 weeks. Once it heals and the inflammation goes down, the pain usually goes down as well.
If your disc herniation is pressing on a nerve root, the disc may shrink as it heals, removing pressure from the nerve. This is the best scenario obviously, as you avoid surgery and get your life back. At this point, it is prudent to avoid activity that risks re-injury (heavy lifting while turning torso) and do everything you can to strengthen your core muscles and spinal muscles to guard against re-injury. Functional exercises should be emphasized, for this purpose.
The thing that can dramatically increase the chances of full recovery without surgery is healing your insides– reduce systemic inflammation by getting down to a healthy weight and maintaining it; stop smoking, avoid alcohol as best you can, reduce stress, reduce insulin levels, maintain normal blood glucose levels, ensure that your gut micro flora is in balance, and get adequate sleep every day. Eat healthy, decrease your portions, and drink enough water to stay hydrated throughout the day. Exercise consistently, 20-40 minutes each time. This is what a healthy lifestyle routine is made of.
People who are in pain usually are concerned about knocking down the pain first, and ignore the health of the rest of their body. Remember, your entire body is essentially a colony of specialized cells that are interconnected via the bloodstream, nerves, and hormones. When one area is injured, the rest can come to its aid.
If you suffer from disc herniations, joint pain or other musculoskeletal form of pain and are overweight, pay more attention to getting yourself healthy inside; it’s the often ignored self-help method to treat pain.