Easing Back Pain: How Dry Needling for Herniated Disc Offers Relief

Looking for treatments for herniated disc pain? Dry needling for herniated discs might be the answer without surgery.

In this article we’ll look at how dry needling can help with herniated disc pain by relaxing the muscles and reducing nerve irritation. We’ll cover the benefits, side effects, and how to incorporate it into a holistic back pain program – so you can make an informed decision about your back pain.

What’s the connection between a herniated disc & chronic low back pain?

Picture this: your back is made up of vertebrae (back bones) stacked on top of each other, with gel-like cushions, called discs, in between each bone. Now think of the gel-like inner part of the disc (called the nucleus) bulging out through a gap in the tough outer layer. This is what happens in a herniated disc.

When this happens, it can sometimes cause pressure or irritation to a nerve, and this can cause discomfort.

For people who live with chronic pain, central sensitization can make herniated disc pain worse by amplifying the signals coming from the affected area1.

Central sensitization is a disordered state of the nervous system, which makes it more sensitive to stimuli. This means the nerves in the spinal cord and brain become more reactive to signals and people with central sensitization are more likely to experience pain, and other symptoms, as a result. This can create a vicious cycle of pain that’s hard to manage because the nervous system is essentially “on high” and more responsive to triggers.

What causes herniated disc pain?

The pain of a herniated disc is all about the abnormal protrusion and subsequent irritation of surrounding nerves. When the inner gel-like nucleus of a disc bulges out through a tear in its tough outer layer it might press on adjacent spinal nerves. This can cause inflammation and distress. And in turn, that can trigger:

  • nerve irritation
  • spasming muscles
  • sharp radiating pain
  • muscle weakness.

How do trigger points contribute to low back pain?

Trigger points are not fully understood, but they are seen to be particularly sensitive spots in the skeletal muscle. Although these are not related to spinal discs, if an area of muscle is particularly tight and sore, it can cause direct and referred pain2.

These sneaky troublemakers are invisible but by finding and treating them this dry needling technique can relieve the discomfort and dysfunction they cause and give relief to the lower back area.

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How does dry needling work for herniated discs?

Dry needling involves the precise insertion of a very thin, solid needle through the skin and into tight muscle bands. This can cause a local twitch response or muscle spasm – a brief muscle contraction, that may or may not be uncomfortable. This contraction usually relaxes quickly, providing relief from the initial pain or tension.

This technique targets areas of muscle tension and acts as a trigger for improved blood flow and calms nerve irritation3. It can also promote the build up of lactic acid from an area of muscle. Lactic acid is what can build up and cause muscle cramp after intense exercise.

Is dry needling like acupuncture?

While both dry needling and acupuncture involve inserting needles into specific points on the body, they are very different. Dry needling targets myofascial trigger points directly. Acupuncture is based on traditional Chinese medicine.

What are the benefits of dry needling?

Dry needling, by targeting specific areas of muscle tension and nerve irritation, has many benefits for people with a herniated disc.

Pain relief

One of the main benefits of dry needling is the reduction of pain. By inserting needles into trigger points the treatment releases muscle tension and reduces nerve irritation can be the root of pain. This can give immediate relief to many people, making everyday activities more manageable.

Mobility

Dry needling can also improve your mobility by relaxing tight muscles and reducing muscle spasms. This is especially good for people who have muscle tension caused by herniated discs.

Blood flow & healing

The insertion of the needles stimulates blood flow to the area, which can speed up the healing process. This is because increased circulation brings more oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, to repair damaged muscles and reduce inflammation. This can be especially good for chronic conditions where healing has been slow or stuck.

Muscle tension & spasms

Muscle tension and spasms are common for people with herniated discs. Dry needling releases these tight knots and gives you relief and comfort. The reduction of muscle tension can also reduce the likelihood of future spasms and long-term pain management.

Non-invasive & drug free

For those who want to avoid surgery or medication, dry needling is a non-invasive and drug-free option. It’s a way to get pain relief and muscle relaxation without the risks of surgery or long-term medication use.

What are the side effects of dry needling?

Generally, the side effects of dry needling are mild and can include:

  • general soreness around the area
  • mild bruising
  • stiffness
  • fainting
  • fatigue.

There is also a risk of infection, and so you should be able to see your practitioner remove sterile, single-use needles from packaging, specifically for your treatment. Always talk to your healthcare professional before you get any treatment done.

How to incorporate dry needling into your treatment plan

While effective dry needling doesn’t work alone for chronic low back pain, it can be part of a multidisciplinary approach. This would include addressing any psychological aspects f your pain, using medication if required, and combining it with other physical therapy options.

And although you may have been diagnosed with a herniated disc it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the cause of your back pain. In fact, many people who have herniated disc experience no pain or other symptoms4.

So having back pain and a herniated disc doesn’t always mean the disc is causing the pain. Sometimes it’s just an incidental finding. Diagnosing the cause of the pain is more important than an MRI showing a herniated disc. Other conditions like referred pain or central sensitization might be causing your back pain.

Retraining your pain response

We need to understand how we can influence our brain’s interpretation of pain. Pain is not just a physical sensation; it’s a complex experience of emotions, thoughts, and environment.

First, find out what makes your pain worse. This could be stress, negative thinking, or specific activities. Once you know what they are, you can change them. This might mean eating better, sleeping better, being more active, or learning new ways to think and respond to those triggers. With time and practice you can retrain your brain to handle pain differently and the pain will be less intense and less of a problem in your life.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a way to address the mental aspects of chronic back pain. It can help you manage any stress, anxiety, or unhappiness that might come with your pain, or be making your symptoms worse. CBT teaches you coping skills to change negative thought patterns4.

This means recognizing when stress is impacting your life or relationships. You may want to seek help from trained professionals as a key part of building resilience to chronic back pain.

Exercise

Gentle physical activity like yoga or mild daily exercises can strengthen your body and ease back pain.

Exercise also releases endorphins. These are natural chemicals in your body that help reduce stress and feel good. Endorphins can improve your mood and break the cycle of worries and pain5.

Medication for short-term relief

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs like ibuprofen, are used to relieve pain and inflammation. If this over-the-counter medications do not help, your doctor might prescribe stronger meds. These could be muscle relaxers or even narcotic pain meds, which can give you more relief.

While these medications can help with pain, they are only one part of the overall plan, and are not a long-term solution. Using any medicine for a long time can cause problems for your central nervous system. Your body can become tolerant, meaning you may need a higher dose to get the same pain relief.

Sleep

Sleeping well can be tough when you have back pain but it’s essential for healing. Here are some tips to improve your sleep and overall health:

  • Stick to a sleep schedule. 8 hours of sleep and consistent bedtime and wake up time.
  • Limit naps so they don’t interfere with your nighttime sleep.
  • Be active during the day so you can sleep better at night.
  • Develop a bedtime routine that doesn’t involve screens. This will help your brain wind down before sleep.
  • Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary. Dark and quiet.
  • Monitor your caffeine intake especially in the afternoon and evening. Caffeine can stay in your system and make it hard to sleep.
  • Don’t eat heavy meals and alcohol before bedtime. They can disrupt your sleep.
  • Do relaxing activities outside of sleep. This will help you manage your symptoms and sleep better.

More information

At MoreGoodDays®, we have created a program grounded in scientific research to assist you in managing chronic back pain. Our approach helps you move past common misunderstandings about back pain. We focus on finding the root causes and triggers, and we teach you how to change your body's response to pain using the principles of neuroplasticity.

We provide personalized coaching and various tools to help you manage pain, support your mental health, and improve your overall wellbeing.

Download our mobile app for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store for immediate access to some of our content and to see your support options.