Can Herniated Discs Heal?

By: Michael Cox PT, DPT
Assistant Clinical Director
Orthopaedic Rehab Specialists, P.C. - Holt

How many times have you heard someone say that they “blew out a disc” years ago and that they haven’t been able to do anything since?  How many times have you heard horror stories of someone that “slipped a disc” and can no longer stand up straight? Spinal discs have caught a bad reputation for being the cause of significant disability in our lives.

A spinal disc is the soft pad positioned between each vertebrae in the spine.  These discs act as a shock absorber as well as provide movement and flexibility to the spine.  These discs are made up of a soft nucleus (nucleus palposus) and a tougher, thicker exterior (annulus fibrosus).  A disc herniation occurs when a portion of the soft nucleus begins to push against or through the outer layer, either due to wear and tear or injury.  Pain occurs when this injured disc begins to compress or irritate the spinal nerves near the disc.

Despite their scary reputation, spinal disc injuries can, and very often do, heal without surgical intervention.  Studies show that 40-100% of all disc injuries and 70-96% of disc extrusions and sequestrations (the two most severe disc injuries) can spontaneously regress and heal within 3-40 months of injury.

A disc injury does not necessarily mean permanent damage or mandate spinal surgery.  Injuries can be treated conservatively with a combination of NSAIDs and physical therapy.  Physical therapy can be useful in treating disc injuries and promoting healing by improving body mechanics, increasing strength and mobility, decreasing spinal compression and reducing inflammation.

Michael is a Physical Therapist at our Holt Clinic and can be reached at michaelpt@orsmi.com