Treating Herniated Disc: How Can Chiropractors Help?
A herniated disc is a common medical problem that usually affects people aged 35 and older. Luckily, chiropractors have an excellent track record of effectively treating herniated (also called slipped) discs. Here’s how.
The most common type of chiropractic treatment for a herniated disc is called spinal manipulation. It’s a proven and safe treatment option wherein a chiropractor uses his or her hands to manipulate the spine, helping reposition the disc and relieve pressure. However, this is one of many treatment tactics chiropractors use. The exact treatment plan depends on the patient and the underlying cause of the herniation.
Symptoms and Causes of Herniated Discs
To understand the symptoms and causes of a herniated disc, it’s best to understand the anatomy of the spine and the role discs play there. It’s much easier to see how chiropractic treatments can help herniated discs when you know a little bit about them.
The Spine and Slipped Discs
The human spine is made up of bones in a column. Between each of these bones, or vertebrae, is a disc. The only exception to this being the atlas and axis vertebrae which allow the head to swivel and nod. The rest of the vertebrae need discs to perform three major functions:
- Shock absorption from walking, running, jumping, lifting, and twisting.
- To help hold the spine together, acting as ligaments.
- To allow for mobility of the spine. Without them we would have a hard time arching or twisting our backs.
The discs themselves are made up of a gel-like center surrounded by a tough outer membrane consisting of collagen fibers. Herniation occurs when that outer membrane develops a hole or a tear and some of the gel-like center leaks out.
Much of the time when this happens you don’t even know that it has. It is only when the herniated disc irritates a nerve that people feel pain and discomfort.
Note: Herniated discs are often called bulging, slipped, or ruptured. You may find these terms used interchangeably, even though they may refer to a disc whose outer membrane has bulged but does not have a hole or a tear in it. Many of the chiropractic treatment options are the same or similar for both issues.
As we age our spinal discs become harder and more brittle. This is why herniated discs tend to affect people over the age of 35. The overall cause of disc herniation is usually a combination of natural disc degeneration and pressure on the spine. This pressure can happen a number of ways, including:
- Heavy Lifting and Twisting
- Those who work physically demanding jobs that require them to lift heavy objects and twist with them are more likely to experience a herniated disc.
- Carrying extra weight puts strain on the spinal discs, making overweight individuals more susceptible.
- Lack of Exercise
- A sedentary lifestyle can weaken the back muscles which puts more pressure on the spinal discs.
- Too Much Sitting & Poor Posture
- Those who work jobs where they’re required to sit all day are also at risk, mostly because sitting for extended periods pulls the back into an unnatural posture, which puts pressure on the spinal discs.
- An injury, like that suffered in a car accident, a fall, or some other trauma causing the spine to compress can cause a herniated disc.
The symptoms of a herniated disc vary depending on where the disc is and what nerve or nerves it’s irritating. For some, there are no symptoms. For others, symptoms include:
- Pain with specific movements (bending, twisting, walking, running, sitting, etc.)
- Numbness and pain— usually on one side of the body.
- Muscle weakness.
- Pain radiating down the legs and/or arms.
- Numbness, burning, or aching of the area around the spine.
- Pain that increases or becomes apparent at night.
- Pain radiating down the sciatic nerve, also known as sciatica, can be a symptom of a herniated disc.
Determining Chiropractic Treatment for a Herniated Disc
When you visit a chiropractor for help with a herniated disc, the doctor will determine treatment based on many different factors. If it’s your first visit to the chiropractor, he or she will have you answer typical questions about your medical history. Your chiropractor will also perform a physical exam as well as testing your reflexes and determine the extent of any numbness or weakness around the affected area.
You may have X-rays taken and the chiropractor will look at the health of your entire spine, and your physical health in general. Sometimes what you think is a herniated disc is actually caused by something else. Looking at the health of your entire spine is key to a proper diagnosis.
If your chiropractor determines that chiropractic treatment is the best course for care, he or she will develop a personalized plan based on different factors. These are generally:
- Your level of pain.
- Your overall activity level.
- Your lifestyle and overall health.
- The severity of the herniation.
- The health of your spine.
Some of the different modalities that are used to treat herniated discs include:
- Spinal Manipulation
- Your chiropractor uses their hands to slowly but forcefully align the spine and take pressure off the affected disc or discs.
- Involves the use of a specially-designed table to stretch the spine while the chiropractor works on the affected area.
- Pelvic Blocking
- The use of special wedges placed under each side of the pelvis. Often used in conjunction with exercises, this treatment is another way of relieving spinal pressure to the affected area.
Addressing Underlying Issues
Chiropractic care for herniated discs is about more than just making the pain go away, although that is a major concern. Since chiropractors are trained in treating the body as a whole, they will often try to determine what the underlying issues are that caused the herniated disc. Even if the cause is simply aging or an injury, there are things you can do to help prevent a herniated disc from happening again.
Although chiropractors are by and large very good at communicating with their patients, it’s always a good idea to ask any questions you may have. Even unbidden, chiropractors will often suggest exercises or lifestyle changes to prevent further disc herniations. Sometimes all it takes is a few minutes a day of stretching or improving your posture to ward off future disc problems.
Chiropractic Care for Herniated Discs: Safe or Not?
There are numerous misconceptions in the public psyche about the safety of chiropractic care, both in general and for herniated discs. The truth is that chiropractic care has been shown to be very safe and effective for all kinds of musculoskeletal treatments.
One systematic review of literature and studies determined that chiropractic spinal manipulation for lumbar disc herniation is safe, with worsening symptoms very rare. Other studies have found that the instances of serious adverse effects due to chiropractic treatment are thought to be very low.
How to Prevent a Herniated Disc
Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to prevent a slipped disc. However, as mentioned above, there are things that your chiropractor may suggest that can help reduce the chances of suffering a slipped disc again. These suggestions vary from person to person, but they often include things like:
- Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
- Perform regular physical activity to stay healthy.
- When lifting heavy things, do so with the legs and not the back.
- Make sure to stand a stretch often if you sit for long periods.
- Perform exercises that focus on strengthening your back muscles.
About the Author
Dr. Brent Wells has been a trusted chiropractor since moving his family from Oregon to Alaska back in 1998 and founded Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab – B.S. from Univ. of Nevada, Doctorate from Western States Chiropractic College, volunteer for Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Foundation, and member of the American Chiropractic Association. As a chiropractor his focus is on family, including his 3 children and wife of 20+ years, his clinics, and ongoing education.