A herniated disc is a condition in which the shock-absorbing material between spinal vertebrae bulges under compression. This can not only cause chronic back pain, but wears on the vertebrae, causing mobility problems later. Mostly, people hear of surgeries used to correct these back injuries. Those fearful of surgery, however, might ask, “Can herniated discs heal?”
Slipped and Bulging Discs
The intervertebral disc is a fibroelastic ring with a soft, gelatinous center allowing flexibility in the spine. It also cushions stresses to the vertebrae. Trauma or diseases can cause them to lose elasticity; in other cases they become herniated. Herniated discs are more commonly called “slipped” or “bulging” discs. “Slipped disc” is a bit misleading – the disc does not actually “slip” out of place, but its center is compressed away from its proper spot.
A slipped disc is when strain or trauma causes the disc’s soft center to squeeze outward to the edge of the disc, creating a bulge on its surface. Beyond causing the loss of cushioning between vertebrae the resultant bulge can protrude into the spinal canal. There, it presses against spinal nerves. The result is pain of varying degrees. If the pain is felt only locally it is commonly called a backache; more severe cases devolve into lumbago (though ligament and muscle injuries can cause lumbago, too).
Sometimes the bulging disc leads to “referred” pain. This pain manifests in other parts of the body, as in sciatica (felt in the legs). Severe cases of slipped disc can lead to muscle weakness, paralysis of muscle function, and loss of sensation.
Do Herniated Discs Heal?
In many cases the answer to the question, “Do herniated discs heal?” is a qualified “yes”.
Slipped and bulging discs can be experienced by many over the course of a lifetime. Dependent upon severity, a person’s first experience with a slipped disc may the last as well – the tendency is for the disc to reorient, returning to normal over time unless reinjured. This may take anywhere from one to six months. Those who have had such a problem usually have learned their lesson and discover the proper way to lift heavy objects to avoid twisting and strain. A back brace to keep the spine properly aligned may also be used. Or, they are given exercises and instructions by a physician or physical therapist to accomplish the same thing.
Another process by which herniated discs heal is “resorption”. During resorption, extraneous fragments or tissues are absorbed by the body, smoothing out, as it were, the rough edges, especially when a herniated disc ruptures
This is less the case in people over the age of 40. The soft center begins to harden, and over time will become as tough as the gristly ring holding it in place. For the more mature, a slipped disc will probably not take care of itself.
So, can herniated discs heal? Sometimes – however, if pain in the back or neck is suspected from a slipped disc and persists for more than a week, it is advisable to see a doctor rather than waiting for it to heal itself.