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Will my herniated disc heal on its own?

September 1, 2020

Ask the doctors

Q. I have a herniated disc in my back. What does this mean, and will this heal on its own?

A. A herniated disc, also called a slipped or ruptured disc, is a common problem that can happen at any age, but becomes more common in middle age and beyond. It occurs when the jelly-like filling in a spinal disc — one of the pads between your vertebrae, or spinal bones — breaks through the disc's outer shell, called the annulus, and bulges through the tear. When this happens, the material may press on nearby nerves, which can cause a host of symptoms including inflammation, pain, and numbness. Where in your body you experience these symptoms depends on the location of the herniated disc. For example, if the disc is in your neck, you may feel pain down your shoulder and into your arm. If the disc is lower in your back, it may irritate your sciatic nerve, which can cause pain that radiates through your buttock and down your leg. The good news is that in most cases — 90% of the time — pain caused by a herniated disc will go away on its own within six months. Initially, your doctor will likely recommend that you take an over-the-counter pain reliever and limit activities that cause pain or discomfort. But in some cases, if you've been using these strategies and haven't noticed an improvement, your doctor may recommend further evaluation and possibly an additional treatment strategy, such as physical therapy. Surgery is typically not recommended unless the problem does not respond to therapy, if you are having an increasingly hard time moving, or if your doctor believes the spinal cord is being compressed.

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