Herniated Disks in the Lower Back

This is the last of our three-part back pain series. So far, we have talked about sciatica pain and pelvic and tailbone pain. We saved what is probably the most debilitating lower back pain of all for last — the herniated disk. This injury usually requires medical care, X-rays, MRIs, time off from work, pain pills, injections and possibly a permanent change in a person’s ability to get back to their normal routine. I can speak from experience; tooth pain and pain from a herniated disk are about the worst pain anyone can suffer.

A herniated, slipped or protruding disk are all ways of saying that a disk has been at least partially ruptured, causing the contents of the inside of the disk to press outward. This can cause a bulge on a nerve root exiting under the bulge. It is characterized by numbness, aching, tingling or weakness that does not go away with ice, hot packs, stretches or massage. If you experience a loss of bladder or bowel function, see your healthcare provider right away as this can be serious.

This injury typically happens when a heavy load is lifted from the ground while bending at the waist and not the knees or hips.  A herniated disk can cause permanent changes in the way the back works, causing a “weak link.” It can cause pain down one or both legs that comes and goes and never really heals.  

Now the GOOD NEWS: The New England Journal of Medicine has printed a study of a herniated disk in the neck that made a full, 100% recovery! The body can heal itself but only under the best of circumstances where everything goes right. This starts with figuring out what decreases the pain. If you can do something to make it worse, you can do something to make it better, right? This usually is going to involve some kind of traction or inversion table or other way of decompressing the disk. 

The key to treating a herniated disk is getting help quickly. Removing the pressure from the nerve tissue and pressing the disk material back so it takes the pressure off the torn disk cartilage is critical. Progressions from rest to flexibility and core strengthening exercises and eventually returning to normal activity is the final step. The best cure is prevention, though, so lift with your legs and not your back.