A herniated disc is a common condition that affects the spine, causing pain, numbness, weakness, or tingling in the neck, back, arms, or legs. It occurs when one of the discs that cushion the bones of the spine (vertebrae) tears or bulges out of place, putting pressure on nearby nerves.
Most patients with herniated discs recover within a few weeks or months with conservative treatments such as rest, medication, physical therapy, or injections. However, some may experience chronic or recurrent symptoms that last longer than expected. In this article, we will explore the factors that can affect the healing time of a herniated disc and what you can do to speed up your recovery.
Factors that Influence Healing Time
- Location and severity – A herniated disc in the lower back (lumbar spine) may take longer to heal than one in the neck (cervical spine), as the lower back bears more weight and stress. Similarly, a larger or more severe disc herniation may cause more inflammation and nerve compression, prolonging the healing process.
- Age and health – Older people tend to have less flexible and more degenerated discs, which may slow down the healing process. People with other health conditions such as diabetes, obesity, or poor nutrition may also have impaired blood flow and tissue repair, affecting their recovery.
- Lifestyle and activity level – People who are physically active and follow a healthy diet may recover faster than those who are sedentary and eat poorly. However, too much or too little activity can also hinder the healing process. People who resume their normal activities too soon or engage in activities that aggravate their symptoms may cause further damage to their discs. On the other hand, people who avoid all movement and rest too much may lose muscle strength and flexibility, which can delay their recovery.
- Type and frequency of treatment – Different treatments have different effects on the healing process of a herniated disc. Some treatments may provide temporary relief but do not address the underlying cause of the disc injury. For example, painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs may reduce pain and inflammation but do not promote disc healing. Other treatments may heal the disc but require more time and commitment. For example, physical therapy and exercises may strengthen the muscles and improve posture, but they may take several weeks or months to show results.
How to Speed Up Recovery
- Follow your doctor's advice – Your doctor will recommend the best treatment plan for your condition based on your symptoms, medical history, physical examination, and imaging tests. In more severe cases, a back surgery procedure such as a discectomy or less invasive microdiscectomy may be recommended. Follow your doctor's instructions carefully and report any changes or concerns to your doctor promptly.
- Avoid activities that worsen your symptoms – Certain activities, such as bending, twisting, lifting heavy objects, sitting for long periods, or driving, can aggravate your symptoms and delay your healing. Avoid these activities until your doctor clears you to resume them. Instead, try to maintain a moderate level of activity that does not cause pain or discomfort.
- Apply heat or ice – Applying heat or ice to the affected area can reduce pain and inflammation. Use a heating pad or a warm compress for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day to relax the muscles and increase blood flow. Use an ice pack or a cold compress for 10 to 15 minutes several times a day to numb the pain and reduce swelling. Do not apply heat or ice directly to your skin. Instead, wrap heating or cooling pads in a towel or cloth first.
- Do gentle stretches and exercises – Gentle stretches and exercises can increase range of motion, flexibility, and muscle strength. They can also stimulate blood circulation and promote disc healing. Ask your doctor or physical therapist for specific exercises that are suitable for your condition. Start slowly and gradually increase the intensity and duration of your exercises as you feel better.
- Consider alternative therapies – Some alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, chiropractic care, yoga, or meditation, may relieve pain and stress associated with a herniated disc. However, these therapies are not proven to be effective for everyone and may have some risks or side effects. Consult your doctor before trying any alternative therapies.
The healing timeline for a herniated disc is influenced by several factors and can vary from person to person. While it is possible for a herniated disc to take up to two years to heal, this is not the case for everyone. By understanding the factors affecting healing, seeking appropriate treatment, and making lifestyle adjustments, individuals can navigate the recovery journey with patience, persistence, and a better understanding of their own unique circumstances.
If you have a herniated disc that is not responding to conservative treatment, a discectomy may be discussed and potentially recommended. Discectomy recovery time varies among individuals and depends on factors such as whether the patient has a large hole in the outer ring of the disc after surgery. Although discectomy is generally a very successful procedure, having a large hole in the outer ring of the disc more than doubles the risk of needing another operation. A new treatment, Barricaid, is a bone-anchored device that closes this hole, and 95 percent of Barricaid patients did not undergo a reoperation due to reherniation in a 2-year study timeframe. This treatment is done immediately following the discectomy—during the same operation—and does not require any additional incisions or time in the hospital.
For full benefit/risk information, please visit: https://www.barricaid.com/instructions.