Discovering Hope: Can a Herniated Disc Heal After 2 Years?

The short answer is yes, even after two years, it’s possible for a herniated disc to heal.

Discs are the cushioning pads that sit between the bones of your back. A herniated disc happens when some of the gel-like center of a disc pushes out, through a gap in the tough outer layer. This sometimes causes irritation and pressure to surrounding nerves.

Typically, healing from herniated discs occurs within 2 to 8 weeks. The body absorbs the damaged disc material, and things go back to normal. So, what should you do if you are still in pain, months or years later?

In this article, we will explore the factors that influence healing time and what you can do to heal faster. We'll also help you understand why your pain isn't going away and what you can do to treat this chronic pain.

What are the factors that influence healing time?

The path to recovery from a herniated disc varies for each person. Many factors affect how long it takes to heal. Age, overall health, severity of the herniation, and activity level all play a role.

The extent of the injury is also important. The more severe the herniation, the longer and stronger the body’s natural repair response must be.

Not all herniated discs fully heal. The bulging may shrink and pain may lessen, but the tear in the disc often remains1. However, the pain and symptoms usually disappear. In fact, herniated discs don't have to hurt at all. Quite a lot of people show signs of a herniation on a scan, but don't experience any symptoms.

Time

Most people with a herniated disc see a big reduction in their symptoms within the first 6 weeks to 3 months2. This usually happens without needing surgery or any other specific treatment. This shows how amazing the body is at healing itself when given the right care and conditions.

Recovery does not stop as time goes on, and even a large lumbar disc herniation can get better over time. This means that even if the disc problem is severe, there is still hope for significant improvement or full healing. And understanding why some people take longer to heal can help those who are still in pain.

Biological factors

At the microscopic level, many biological processes work together to heal a herniated disc. Collagen, which is essential for the disc's structure, is produced and repaired by the body's tissue repair mechanisms3. Our discs need more than just fibers to stay healthy; blood supply and inflammation also play crucial roles in the healing process.

How can I heal a herniated disc faster?

Recovery from a herniated disc takes time and effort. There are no quick solutions, but some methods can help you heal faster.

Your overall health plays a big role in how quickly you recover. This includes how well you sleep, how active you are, what you eat, and whether you smoke.

Most people feel better within 12 weeks. However, if your case is more severe, or if other factors cause you to experience more pain, you might need to keep up with light exercises such as biking or swimming. These activities help you heal without putting too much strain on your body, unlike running, which can be too hard on your back.

Nutrition

Nourishing your body with the right nutrients is like building a strong foundation for a house. It is essential for durability and strength. An anti-inflammatory diet (like the Mediterranean diet) rich in antioxidants and sulfur can help your body recover from disc injuries4. These nutrients reduce inflammation, which can slow down healing. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, as they dehydrate the body. Also, stay away from foods that cause inflammation.

A diet for spinal health goes beyond just reducing inflammation. Eating high-fiber foods helps with digestion, which can reduce pressure on an injured disc. Consuming enough calcium is important for bone strength. This approach not only helps with immediate recovery from a herniated disc but also promotes long-term spinal health. This leads to better healing outcomes.

Exercise & physical therapy

Starting with gentle stretching and slowly increasing the intensity, based on your individual pain tolerance, can enhance your strength and flexibility without exacerbating your condition.

Any physical activity is beneficial, because they promote improved blood and oxygen flow, keep your body mobile, and also strengthen the body (including the muscles around the spine). Overall health and wellbeing promotes better spinal health and facilitates a smoother healing process. If you're moving your body, you're doing it right.

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How can I tell that my herniated disc is healing?

To track the recovery of a herniated disc, it's important to listen to your body. Look for signs of improvement, such as experiencing less pain and needing fewer pain medications. Regular check-ups with your healthcare provider allow you to discuss your pain and perform clinical evaluations to monitor your healing progress.

Also pay attention to changes in neurological symptoms, such as loss of sensation, tingling, or muscle weakness. A decrease in these symptoms indicates that healing is taking place and suggests that the impact of the herniated disc is lessening.

Signs that the body is healing include:

  • a reduction in pain levels
  • enhanced mobility
  • decreased reliance on pain medication
  • pain occurring less frequently rather than constantly
  • improved sleep quality as nighttime discomfort diminishes.

You might notice that you're able to perform daily activities more easily, and this is great evidence that you are progressing well in your recovery journey. This milestone not only reflects a reduction in your discomfort, but can also signify the reclaiming of your regular lifestyle and its associated pleasures – a true measure that recovery isn’t just about lessening pain but about fully re-engaging with life's worthwhileness.

Why is my herniated disc pain not going away?

We've already learned that herniated discs heal naturally over time, and are usually healed withing 3 months. However, if your back pain persists, there may be another underlying issue at play. Other conditions, such as referred pain or central sensitization, might be responsible for your back pain.

Central sensitization

Central sensitization is a disordered state of the central nervous system – your brain and spinal cord. In this disordered state, it becomes extremely sensitive to stimuli. This means that things that wouldn’t normally hurt, suddenly cause pain, so you might feel pain more or feel pain with no apparent reason. Your nervous system stays in hyper-mode and you become pain-prone.

Research shows back pain isn’t just about a physical issue like a herniated disc. It’s about how the central nervous system processes pain5.

How can I manage back pain after my herniated disc has healed?

Treating your back pain requires a multidisciplinary approach, including physical therapy to desensitize the nervous system, cognitive behavioral therapy to address psychological factors, and may include medications to manage symptoms.

Retraining your pain response

To understand how we can influence our brain's interpretation of pain, it is essential to recognize that pain is not just a physical sensation. It is a complex experience influenced by emotions, thoughts, and the environment.

The first step is to identify what makes your pain worse. This could be stress, negative thinking, or specific activities. Once you know these triggers, you can start to change them. This might involve eating a healthier diet, improving your sleep, staying active, or learning new ways to think about and respond to these triggers. With time and practice, you can teach your brain to handle pain differently. This can make the pain less intense and less of a problem in your life.

Exercise

Contrary to the popular belief that you should stop your exercise activity when experiencing back pain, exercise, when done gradually, is actually safe and beneficial for your spine.

Regular physical activity helps maintain spinal health by improving blood flow. This delivers essential nutrients to the spinal discs and promotes healing. Low-impact exercises such as walking, swimming, or cycling can strengthen the muscles supporting your spine, reduce stiffness, and enhance flexibility.

Sleep

Getting good sleep can be tough when you have back pain, but it's important for healing. Here are some tips to improve your sleep and overall health:

  • Try to stick to a regular sleep schedule. Aim for eight hours of sleep and keep your bedtime and wake-up time consistent.
  • Keep naps short so they don't interfere with your nighttime sleep.
  • Stay active during the day to help you fall asleep more easily at night.
  • Develop a bedtime routine that doesn't involve screens. This helps your mind relax before sleep.
  • Make your bedroom a restful place. Keep it dark and quiet.
  • Watch your caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening. Caffeine can stay in your system and make it hard to sleep.
  • Avoid heavy meals and alcohol before bedtime. They can disrupt your sleep.
  • Find time for relaxing activities outside of sleep. This can help you manage your symptoms and sleep better.

Medication as an enabler

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, are often used to relieve the pain and inflammation associated back pain. If the pain is very severe, your doctor may prescribe other advanced medications. These include muscle relaxers and even narcotic pain medications, which can offer more effective relief.

Although these medications may help manage pain, they are only a part of the overall treatment plan. They are not a permanent solution. Long-term use of any medication can cause problems for the body’s central nervous system, which can actually become tolerant to the drugs, so you may need a higher quantity of the medication to achieve the same pain-blocking effect.

Stress management

While stress is an inevitable aspect of human experience, mastering its management can significantly mitigate its impact on your body. Developing proficiency in stress management techniques can diminish the likelihood of everyday stressors manifesting as physical pain.

There are effective strategies to reduce stress, such as engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and practicing mindfulness, which can sharpen your cognitive processes, anchor you in the present, and foster relaxation. Additionally, it's beneficial to seek out social support, whether through conversations with friends, counseling sessions, or participation in support groups where you can express your emotions and receive encouragement.

More information

At MoreGoodDays®, we've crafted a program grounded in scientific research to support you in dealing with chronic back pain. Our approach helps dispel common myths about back pain, focusing on understanding its root causes, identifying triggers, and learning to alter your body's reaction to pain using neuroplasticity principles.

We provide tailored coaching and a range of tools to guide you in managing pain, supporting mental health, and enhancing your overall quality of life.

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