Managing a Herniated Disc Flare-up – Effective Remedies & Treatment

When a flare-up of a herniated disc occurs, it leads to sharp and severe pain as the disc compresses nearby nerves. Recognizing your symptoms early and taking early action, can reduce the intensity and duration of your flare.

This article provides a guide on identifying a herniated disc-related flare-up, how to treat it when it does occur, and how to manage your underlying chronic back pain. You'll walk away empowered with the knowledge of handling future flare-ups.

What is a herniated disc flare-up?

A herniated disc often does not cause symptoms. Many hernias heal on their own and do not require surgery. However, sometimes the disc can press on or irritate the spinal nerves. This can lead to discomfort and pain, and when these get worse, it's known as a "flare-up."

For some, intense pain and other symptoms may last only a few days. For others, the pain might persist for several weeks.

What does a herniated disc flare-up feel like?

The typical symptoms of herniated discs include:

  • a sensation of pain
  • numbness
  • tingling sensations
  • muscle weakness in the back, neck, or extremities.

Pain from a herniated disc in the lower back may travel through the leg to the foot, a condition known as sciatica. On the other hand, a herniated disc in the cervical spine can cause numbness in the hands and discomfort in the shoulders.

There are also some less common symptoms that can indicate a herniated disc. These include:

  • weakened leg muscles as a result of intense compression on the spinal cord
  • sharp pain when laughing, coughing, or sneezing
  • foot discomfort.

How to treat flare-ups due to a herniated disc

In the event of a herniated disc flare-up, taking action can greatly reduce your pain and discomfort. Here are some steps you can follow:

  1. Apply ice packs to the affected area.
  2. Take over-the-counter pain relief medications.
  3. Rest and avoid activities that could worsen your symptoms, but resist the temptation for total bed rest.
  4. Do whatever light movement feels accessible to you, such as a gentle walk, walking in a warm pool, or some gentle stretching at home.

Ice & heat therapy

Applying ice packs to the affected area can reduce pain and swelling. Cold therapy works by numbing the nerve sensation and reducing inflammation. This is particularly helpful in the first few days after an injury and at the beginning of a flare-up.

After a few days, you can switch to heat therapy. One study from 2021 found that using heat wraps can significantly lower pain levels in patients with lower back pain1.

Using a heating pad on the painful area has several benefits, including:

  • relaxing tight muscles
  • boosting blood flow, which can ease pain and promote relaxation
  • reducing muscle spasms
  • enhancing overall comfort.

The warmth from heat therapy provides extra relief and supports recovery. It can also help ease the pressure caused by a herniated disc.

Rest & avoid heavy lifting

Taking short breaks to rest can greatly reduce the pain from a herniated disc. Lying down in a comfortable position for about 30 minutes can help ease the discomfort.

Any exercise that improves your heart health, strengthens your muscles and increases your flexibility can help alleviate your pain. The good news is that any movement is beneficial, so choose an activity you enjoy.

Go gentle when lifting things and bend at the knees to reduce the pressure on your back.

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How do I treat chronic back pain with a herniated disc?

Contrary to popular belief, managing chronic low back pain is not just about maintaining strict posture or having strong core muscles.

You might think "good posture" means always sitting or standing upright with tight core muscles. While an erect posture and a strong core can help when lifting or exercising, this is only a temporary state. You may know someone with poor posture who has no pain, and someone with perfect posture who still suffers from back issues2.

To address back pain effectively, we need to look at both the psychological and physical aspects. This includes retraining how we respond to pain, using medications to help manage symptoms, and making lifestyle adjustments.

Exercise & physical therapy

Understanding your body and your pain is the first step in your recovery journey. This awareness will enable you to use physical activity and exercise to alleviate your symptoms and strengthen your body over time.

Physical therapy can be particularly effective in managing chronic back pain. A physical therapist can develop a personalized exercise plan that targets the muscles supporting your spine and that benefit the whole body.

In addition to physical therapy, integrating mind-body practices like yoga or tai chi into your routine can not only enhance physical flexibility and strength but also help in reducing stress and improving mental wellbeing3.

Stress management

Research shows that stress can impact the physical health of the body, including the tiny cells in your spine's discs. These cells make up the soft, jelly-like centers and tougher outer rings of the discs, which help keep your back flexible and absorb pressure from activities like walking, lifting, and bending4.

Stress can also make you feel more pain. Practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques regularly can help reduce herniated disc pain and muscle spasms.

Diet

It’s not just about the number on the scale, but maintaining a healthy body weight can help to reducing the pressure on your spine and improve your condition. It’s important to talk with your doctor or a nutritionist if you have concerns about your weight and diet.

Eating a balanced diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods is good for your spine. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon and walnuts, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, can help reduce inflammation and promote healing. Staying hydrated is also crucial. Dehydration can decrease the height of your discs and increase the risk of disc herniation.

Medication as an enabler

Medications are best used as a short-term option, allowing you to engage in physical therapy, make any lifestyle changes if needed, and boost your overall health and wellbeing.

To manage the symptoms of a herniated disc, simple pain relief can be very effective. Anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen, help reduce swelling and inflammation around the nerve roots. Analgesics, such as paracetamol, can help control pain levels. Muscle relaxants may also be used to ease any muscle spasms.

Ergonomic adjustments

If your workstation feels awkward and you are in the same position for many hours at a time, it can cause discomfort. Adjusting your workspace to be more ergonomic can help.

However, research shows that it is more important to move regularly than to sit or stand perfectly straight. If you work at a desk, take regular breaks to walk around. If you have a standing desk, switch between sitting and standing. If you are on your feet a lot, shift your weight from one side to the other and take breaks when possible.

Retraining your pain

Sometimes, your pain might not actually be caused by a herniated disc. In one study, 90 patients people who were completely asymptomatic had an MRI of their thoracic spine. Thirty three of these people had a herniated disc, but no pain5!

If you've had pain for more than three months, your pain might be due to something called central sensitization. This is when your nervous system has become extra sensitive and overreacts to even small disturbances, causing you to experience pain from something that might not have previously hurt.

To manage central sensitization, we can start by retraining your pain response. Start by identifying what makes your pain worse. It could be stress, negative thoughts, or certain activities. Once you know these triggers, you can work on changing them. This might include eating healthier, improving your sleep, staying active, or learning new ways to think about and respond to pain triggers. With time and practice, you can teach your brain to handle pain differently. This can make the pain less intense and more manageable in your life.

Sleep

Getting good sleep can be challenging when you're dealing with back pain, but it's crucial for recovery. Here are some tips to enhance your sleep and overall well-being:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. Aim for eight hours of sleep and keep your bedtime and wake-up time the same each day.
  • Limit naps to ensure they don't affect your nighttime sleep.
  • Stay active during the day to help you fall asleep more easily at night.
  • Establish a bedtime routine that avoids screens. This helps your mind unwind before sleep.
  • Make your bedroom a peaceful environment. Keep it dark and quiet.
  • Monitor your caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening, as it can linger in your system and disrupt sleep.
  • Avoid heavy meals and alcohol before bedtime, as they can interfere with your sleep.
  • Incorporate relaxing activities outside of sleep. This can help you manage your symptoms and sleep more effectively.

When to seek medical attention

If your symptoms are new, or if you are experiencing persistent back pain due to disc herniation that does not improve with time or lifestyle changes, it is crucial to consult a healthcare provider.

At MoreGoodDays®, we have developed a program based on scientific research to help you manage chronic back pain. Our approach aims to clear up common misunderstandings about back pain. We focus on finding the root causes, identifying triggers, and teaching you how to change your body's response to pain using neuroplasticity principles.

We offer personalized coaching and various tools to help you manage pain, support your mental health, and improve your overall quality of life.

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.