Frustration, pain, and persuasive surgeons can lead people to surgery before exhausting less invasive options. But innate healing mechanisms in the body can shrink protruding disks and release pinched nerves without anesthesia, scalpels, or hefty hospital fees.

While surgery is sometimes unavoidable, it is wise to first explore other venues of care. The many that suffer from failed back surgery syndrome (FBSS) wind up having to seek out these alternative treatments anyway. Pain from a herniated disk is much easier to treat before surgery than after.

Herniated disk symptoms

A herniated disk happens most often in the lower back (lumbar vertebrae), or in the neck (cervical vertebrae). Sufferers often feel pain in area of hernia and may have traveling pain down the arm or leg. There may also be numbness or weakness in one or more of the limbs.

Posture is often affected; people tend to lean their back or neck away from the hernia to take pressure off of the affected disk.

If very severe there will be stiffness and immobility, paralysis/complete numbness of one or more limbs, and sometimes a loss of bowel and/or urinary control.

Anatomy/physiology

There are 7 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic vertebrae, 5 lumbar vertebrae which compose the bones of the spine. Below that several fused vertebrae make up the sacrum.

Between each of these bones there is an intervertebral foramen, a space that allows for the passage of the spinal nerve. There are 31 pairs of spinal nerves, 24 of which pass adjacent to an intervertebral disk.

The intervertebral disks provide cushioning and flexibility to the spine. There are disks between each of spinal vertebrae, and a disk between the 5th lumbar vertebrae and the sacrum.

The disk consists of a tough ring of cartilage around the edge called the annulus fibrosus and a jelly-like substance in the middle called the nucleus pulposus.

A hernia happens when mechanical strain is too great for the annulus fibrosus to bear and it bulges out or ruptures, allowing part of the nucleus pulposus to leak out.

The bulging/herniated disk presses into the intervertebral foramen which can put pressure on the associated spinal nerve root. This in turn causes localized pain, and can cause nerve dysfunction which can lead to radiating pain, numbness, weakness in the limbs.

This can also lead to organ malfunction, which if severe results in loss of bowel and bladder control. In less severe cases there can be palpitations, stomach cramps, indigestion, asthma and other internal organ disorders depending on which spinal nerve is compressed.

Surgery

Laminotomy is the partial removal of the lamina, a portion of the vertebrae. This is done to allow access to the nerve root and the herniated disk.

Laminectomy is the complete removal of the lamina to allow even greater surgical access to the hernia and the intervertebral disk.

Discectomy

Discectomy is the partial or complete removal of the intervertebral disk. The partial removal focuses only on the part of the disk that is impinging the nerve root. The complete removal of the disk is generally followed by fusing the two vertebrae together so that two bones basically become one; they no longer move independently.

Normally -ectomy means complete removal and -otomy means partial removal, but people don’t often say disc-otomy, only disc-ectomy.

Surgical rationale

The primary goal in discectomy is to remove the portion of the disk that is impinging the nerve. The justification for doing so is that when the nerve is no longer impinged, there will no longer be pain.

This would be a logical outcome if you didn’t take into account the body’s reaction to surgery.

Scar tissue

Once cuts have been made, and tissue removed, the body treats this as an injury and naturally tries to heal the injury.

This results in the formation of scar tissue, a dense clump of tissue that can once again impinge upon the nerve, resulting in pain that is sometimes worse than before the surgery.

The scar tissue is much more difficult to treat than the herniated disk (although still possible).

Mobility

In the case of full discectomy and fusion of the vertebrae range of motion is compromised. The other discs have to stretch further than before to allow for full range of motion to compensate for the missing disks. This means that previously uninjured disks will be more prone to future injury. So future herniated disks are more likely.

Stability

The rationale for laminectomy and laminotomy are sometimes to widen the intervertebral foramen, or remove bone spurs and take additional pressure off of the nerve. But its primary function in discectomy is to provide surgical access to the nerve root and disk. Basically the bones are removed because they are in the surgeon’s way.

The lamina provides spinal stability and protects the spinal cord from damage. Without it the spine is less stable and more prone to injury. No lamina means spinal injuries are more likely to happen again in the future. This is not to mention the scar tissue that results from bone tissue removal.

Surgical Alternatives

Connective Tissue Acceleration

The blood contains all of the necessary ingredients to repair a damaged disk. Unfortunately there is no active transport device to propel the blood inside the disk. The disks don’t have blood vessels that run through them. They depend on passive transport through diffusion to receive nutrients and expel waste.

A healthy disk is usually stretched and flexed through daily activities, which agitates the fluids in the disk and accelerates the rate of diffusion. This flexing and stretching prolongs the life of the disk by improving circulation.

In an injured disk, especially when there is pain involved, range of motion is limited. The disk is usually held in a constant position (if there is movement it is severely limited), and the lack of movement results in reduced circulation. An injured disk requires much more blood flow than a healthy one in order to repair, so the injury becomes self perpetuating.

Connective Tissue Acceleration compresses, decompresses, stretches, and flexes the disk rhythmically. The disk undergoes more movement than would otherwise be possible. This technique acts as a pump to put the healing capacity in the blood to locations it would otherwise not be able to travel as quickly. In this manner the disk is put in a reparative cycle rather than a degenerative cycle.

Acupressure, Acupuncture, and Myofascial Release

A herniated disk can both result in and cause imbalances in the muscles local to the injury. Excessive tightness or slackness in the muscles puts uneven pressure on the vertebrae. The vertebrae in turn are pulled into a position which compresses the disk. This can either exacerbate a disk that is already herniated, or predispose an otherwise healthy disk to injury.

Muscle tightness or chronic contraction in and of itself can put pressure on nerves. This means that muscle tightness can cause pain even without the presence of a herniated disk. If surgery corrects the disk, but the pain was a result of muscle tightness, then pain will persist even after surgery.

Acupressure, Acupuncture, and Myofascial Release are all fast, safe, and effective methods to correct muscle imbalances. Once muscle imbalances are corrected, and pressure on the nerves is reduced, a custom exercise plan will keep the muscles in balance and prevent uneven pressure on the disks.