How to Tell if Herniated Disc is Healing

If you have a herniated disc you may wonder how to tell if it’s healing. Common signs herniated disc is healing are less pain, more mobility, less numbness and tingling and more daily function. This article will go over these signs in detail and guide you through what to look for during your recovery.

What to expect from a healing herniated disc

As a herniated disc is healing, you might experience a fairly consistent and gradual improvement in your symptoms, or you might find that your progress fits into several distinct stages, each with its own characteristics.

In the first phase, stronger pain and limited mobility are more common. Within 4-6 weeks, many people find themselves transitioning from the acute pain of the initial injury to gradual improvement of symptoms.

The subsequent stages may be:

  1. Plateau phase: This phase may have occasional flare-ups but they are often less severe and less frequent than the initial symptoms.
  2. Stabilization phase: This phase is all about maintaining health and preventing future episodes, setting the stage for long term wellness.
  3. Long-term management: In this stage you need to be mindful and monitor your symptoms. Persistent or worsening pain is a red flag that needs attention1.

Most people find that their disc injury heals within 12 weeks.

Is it normal to have numbness & tingling during the healing process?

Yes it’s normal to have numbness and tingling during the healing process of a herniated disc. As the disc heals these sensations will subside meaning less nerve irritation and healing.

What are signs that your herniated disc is healing?

The body heals in its own time, but with herniated discs there are certain signs that can indicate that the disc is getting better. The healing process of a herniated lumbar disk or cervical spine injury is marked by several symptoms that start to subside as herniated discs heal.

From the pain to mobility, each milestone is a step closer to getting your life back from a herniated disc.

Less pain

The first sign of light in the darkness of a herniated disc journey is often a reduction in nerve pain, one of the common herniated disc symptoms. This isn’t just about taking less pain meds; it’s about the body’s ability to reduce inflammation and take pressure off your nerves, including the sciatic nerve. As the inflammation goes down the once severe pain starts to subside and that’s a sign your body is moving in the right direction towards healing from disc herniation.

While reduced pain is a good sign, remember the healing timeline is not linear. Age, health, and the severity of the herniation play a big role. For some, relief may come in a few days, for others it may take months. Patience is key and listening to your body and adapting to its recovery pace.

More mobility & flexibility

Being able to twist, bend, and move without pain is a clear sign your herniated disc is healing. This new found freedom is a sign of nerve compression easing and health being restored to the area. As you get more mobility, the physical relief can be coupled with emotional relief and you can get back to the activities that bring you joy and fulfillment in your life.

Physical therapy is key in this phase with low impact exercises and stretches to increase mobility and strengthen the muscles that act as shock absorbers for your spine. Walking or swimming can also support your journey to more mobility without putting too much stress on the healing disc.

Less numbness & tingling

As you heal, the numbness and tingling, like a sleeping limb waking up, starts to subside. This change often means the center of the damaged disc (called the nucleus pulposus), which is what irritates the nerve and causes the physical symptoms, is retracting from the nerve root. The nerve then starts to heal and the inflammation will decrease.

The reduction of these symptoms is a clear sign the nerve compression is decreasing and the herniated disc is healing.

The journey to this stage can be slow but each day with less numbness and tingling is a win. Improved sensation in the extremities, such as feeling full sensation in your toes or fingers, is a sign of healing and reason to be hopeful.

Daily functioning

As the healing progresses you can participate in daily life without the limitations of a herniated disc.

Being able to do routine tasks, from lifting objects to sitting without discomfort, is a big step towards full recovery. This restoration of function often coincides with better sleep as the pain that was disrupting your nights subsides.

Less pain medication is another sign of recovery as your body’s natural healing is taking over. Celebrate the small wins, like a day without pain meds or a night of uninterrupted sleep, because they are signs of bigger win of overcoming a herniated disc.

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What are some common myths about back pain?

In the world of back pain and leg pain it’s easy to get lost in the myths. A common myth is that all back pain is caused by a herniated disc. But the truth is the roots of discomfort can be complex and sometimes involves:

  • central sensitization, a state in which the nervous system amplifies pain beyond the original injury
  • muscle imbalances and carrying muscle tension
  • inflammation
  • stress and emotional or psychological tension.

How can I heal a herniated disc faster?

While the body heals on its own, there are things you can do to set the stage for a faster recovery. The main way to help your body to heal is to have a healthy lifestyle, which includes:

  • sleeping regularly – aim for 7–8 hours each night, although some people need more or less
  • eating a balanced diet – an anti-inflammatory diet, such as the Mediterranean diet is particularly helpful for many people
  • performing low impact exercises – walking, swimming, cycling, yoga... whatever you enjoy and feels good for your body
  • applying heat or cold packs in the initial stages to give pain relief
  • quitting smoking, if you smoke.

How long will it take to fully heal a herniated disc?

Healing time for a herniated disc can be from a few days to several months. For some people it can take up to 6–12 months, depending on individual factors such as overall health, activity level, and age3.

What can hinder the healing process of a herniated disc?

Certain actions or conditions can stall the healing process. Resuming heavy lifting or activities that puts a lot of stress on the spine too soon can compromise the delicate balance of recovery, although being sedentary is also not advised.

While it may seem counterintuitive, it’s important to avoid the trap of prolonged inactivity. Too much bed rest can stiffen joints and weaken muscles, creating a new set of problems on the road to recovery. Strive for balance: gentle activity without crossing the pain threshold.

Underlying health conditions such as diabetes can also complicate the healing time, you need to be more patient and careful.

Central sensitization

Central sensitization is a disordered state of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). In this state, the nervous system is hyper-sensitive, and even the mildest stimuli can trigger pain.

Central sensitization goes beyond the clinical symptoms; it shows the complexity of pain and its connection to the immune system, and our mental and emotional health. Understanding this is key, because it changes the way we approach pain relief and conservative treatment. The path to relief may be more than a CT scan or just targeting the painful area2.

Retraining your pain

Understanding how we can influence our brain's interpretation of pain is essential, as pain is not just a physical sensation but a complex experience influenced by emotions, thoughts, and the environment.

The first step is to identify what exacerbates your pain, such as stress, negative thinking, or specific activities. Once you recognize these triggers, you can begin to change them. This might involve adopting a healthier diet, improving sleep quality, 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, making it less intense and less of a problem in your life.

Exercise

Contrary to the common belief that you should stop or modify 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, which 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 challenging when you have back pain, but it's crucial for the healing process. Here are some tips to improve your sleep and overall health:

  • 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 with pulled-back muscles. 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. It 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. By incorporating these methods into your daily routine, you can create a buffer against the detrimental effects of stress and enhance your overall wellbeing.

How to track that your herniated disc healing

One of the earliest indicators that your herniated disc is on the path to recovery is a noticeable decrease in pain and discomfort around the affected region. As inflammation reduces and pressure on the nerves lessens, muscle spasms also tend to diminish. Those experiencing this injury can generally expect to resume normal activities within six weeks.

More information

At MoreGoodDays® we have a program based on scientific research to help you with chronic back pain. Our approach debunks common myths about back pain, focuses on understanding the root causes, identifying triggers and learning to change your body’s response to pain using neuroplasticity principles.

We offer personalized coaching and tools to help you manage pain, mental health and overall well being.

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.

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