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9 Alternative Treatment for Herniated Discs

By December 27, 2022No Comments

Herniated discs affect a large number of US adults annually, accounting for around 7 million people. While that might be only 2% of total adults in the country, herniated discs need immediate medical attention. If you’re suffering from this condition, you know how painful and frustrating it can be.

Herniated discs cause lower back pain in 70 to 80% of people. But not every lower back pain means you need surgery. Although surgery is the most effective treatment for herniated discs, many people want to delay it as much as possible. 

Fortunately, clinical studies have found effective alternative treatments for herniated discs. So even if surgery is your last resort, you have many minimally invasive treatment options to consider for your herniated discs. 

1. Physical Therapy

In the olden days, doctors used to rely on one to two weeks of bed rest as a non-surgical option for herniated discs. However, thanks to technological advancement, doctors now recommend patients stay active to help their bodies recover quicker. This means you must balance resting and performing a few activities to improve your herniated discs.

To determine which exercises are the best for your condition, you should consult a physical therapist. The professional will help you understand the intensity of exercises you need for your herniated discs. Most of these exercises will focus on the following:

  • Strengthening your muscles
  • Enhancing your flexibility
  • Helping you recover faster 

The best physical therapy plan for herniated discs includes active and passive exercises. While the former focuses on direct muscle contraction, the latter involves using an external force to contract and relax muscles. The most effective passive and active exercises for herniated discs include the following:

Deep Tissue Massage (DTM)

Deep tissue massage (DTM) focuses on increasing pressure in the deep layers of your muscles through slow but firm stroking. The pressure improves blood circulation and reduces muscle spasms and inflammation. DTM is a passive exercise. 

Depending on your condition, the physical therapist may also include soft tissue mobilization (STM) in your routine. STM works almost similarly to DTM but focuses more on soft tissues. It applies measured pressures for specific duration and depth. 

Traction Therapy

Traction therapy is a passive exercise that aims to relieve pressure from your bones and joints by stretching the soft tissues. For herniated discs, traction therapy improves the hernia by stretching the tissues of the spinal cord gently. 

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

In TENS, physical therapists use a machine to target muscles and nerves with electrical currents. This triggers nerves to release your body’s natural pain-relief hormones called endorphins. This passive exercise works effectively as an alternative treatment for herniated discs.

Aerobic Exercises

Your physical therapist will also work on some active exercises, including aerobic exercises, to promote your blood flow to the spinal cord. It helps your spine become less stiff. The physical therapist will work on low-impact aerobic exercises to improve your disc herniation. The most effective aerobic exercises for herniated discs are cycling, brisk walking, and swimming. 

Muscle-Strengthening Exercises

Practicing muscle-strengthening exercises helps you provide support to your core and back muscles. Strong bones and back muscles evenly distribute your body weight, which removes pressure from your spine. This eventually improves disc herniation.

Stretching Exercises

Stretching exercises make your body more flexible. While it makes doing other exercises easier, it also helps avoid muscle stiffness. Stretching also helps maintain the ideal body balance, reducing pressure on the spine’s discs. 

2. Hot and Cold Therapy

Hot and cold therapies work amazingly separately. However, their effectiveness doubles when used in combination. Doctors usually recommend alternate cold and hot therapy on herniated discs to achieve a two-fold impact. 

Cold therapy relieves pain and inflammation. On the other hand, hot therapy improves blood circulation to promote healing. When using in combination, you should start with cold therapy to relieve your pain and then move on to hot therapy to boost healing and increase your blood flow to the spine. Each therapy has its pros in treating herniated discs.

3. Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an old-school ancient Chinese alternative treatment for herniated discs. The process is based on the concept that everyone has their own specific energy force called Qi (pronounced “chee”). 

A person suffers from pain or illness because of an imbalance of energy force in their body. Acupuncture targets this imbalance of energy. It involves inserting thin needles into the patient’s strategic points to release their Qi channels. 

The popularity of acupuncture isn’t just limited to Chinese medicine. The Western culture also accepts acupuncture as an effective pain-relieving treatment. The process releases endorphins (your body’s natural painkillers) and improves blood flow. 

Many research studies have also concluded that acupuncture is an effective lumbar disc herniation treatment. It also treats the post-operative pain of disc herniation surgery. 

4. Chiropractic Care

Chiropractic care is popular for relieving many types of back pain. Chiropractors can also help you improve your disc herniation through special spinal manipulation techniques. 

This first includes evaluating your spinal cord and identifying the source of pain. Then, the chiropractor adjusts the spine into its proper place and relieves pressure from your nerves and discs. Of course, chiropractic care won’t treat disc herniation, but it can relieve your painful symptoms to help you delay surgery. 

However, a few people believe that chiropractic care can worsen your condition. A study found that chiropractic care can increase the chances of developing acute lumbar disc herniation (LDH) in patients with low back pain. So consult a professional doctor before opting for this alternative treatment for herniated discs. 

5. Over-the-Counter (OTC) or Prescription-Grade Medications

The doctor may prescribe painkillers or over-the-counter (OTC) medications for your disc herniation. Many OTC medicines work wonders in managing pain in mild cases of disc herniation. However, in severe cases, the doctor recommends prescription-grade medications. 

Both help in reducing soreness and inflammation after physical therapy. A few effective OTC medications for herniated disc pain relief include the following:

  • Acetaminophen. With the brand name Tylenol, acetaminophen gives impressive results in relieving pain. But it doesn’t decrease inflammation. The medicine works the same way for herniated discs in reducing pain. However, with persistent inflammation, the pain relief will only be temporary and may aggravate your condition. 
  • Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs include naproxen (Aleve), ibuprofen (Advil), and acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin). These medications are more effective for herniated discs than Tylenol as they reduce pain and inflammation side by side. This prevents your condition from worsening. 

Your doctor may also prescribe one or a combination of two or more of the below medications:

  • Anticonvulsants. Anticonvulsants are known as the best treatment for conditions involving nerve pain. Your doctor will prescribe anticonvulsants if your disc herniation is coupled with severe sciatica pain. However, watch for a few side effects of this medication, which include drowsiness and fatigue.
  • Antidepressants. Antidepressants aren’t only prescribed to patients struggling with anxiety. Instead, these medications are proven to treat chronic back pain. Taking them for several weeks can trigger the neurotransmitters in your spine to relieve pain.
  • Muscle Relaxants. Muscle relaxants, such as benzodiazepines, are addictive. But they are super effective in treating mild herniated disc pain. These medications relax your muscles and provide considerable pain relief.
  • Opioids. Doctors only prescribe opioids to treat severe back pain because they are strong and highly addictive as muscle relaxants. In fact, patients can only take opioids under the strict supervision of a professional. These medicines release endorphins to suppress pain and enhance happy feelings.
  • Steroids. Steroids work wonders in reducing inflammation. However, doctors prescribe them cautiously because they can enhance the risks for many other health issues. 

6. Epidural Steroid Injections (ESIs)

Epidural steroid injections offer a minimally invasive treatment for herniated discs. These injections aim to reduce pain in your back caused due to disc herniation or nerve compression. Apart from reducing pain, ESIs also relieve swelling in your affected spinal area. 

ESIs make an effective alternative treatment for herniated discs with a success rate of 75% to 88%. They also have a short recovery period, but you may not have permanent pain relief with ESIs. Always consult a professional doctor before choosing this treatment method for disc herniation. 

7. Selective Nerve Root Blocks (SNRB)

Selective nerve root block (SNRB) is another minimally invasive treatment option for herniated discs. It involves an injection that disrupts pain signals between your brain and spinal nerves. SNRB injections mostly contain mild anesthesia. But sometimes, they may also have corticosteroid injections to relieve inflammation and pain. 

In SNRB, the doctor injects a mixture of steroids and anesthesia near the nerve root’s neural sheath. The neural sheath is present around every nerve, and the nerve root is where every nerve exits the spinal cord. 

The steroids in SNRBs suppress the arachidonic acid production that causes inflammation and more pain. Meanwhile, the anesthesia restricts pain signals between your brain and the damaged nerve. 

SNRBs are typically diagnostic treatments for herniated discs, but they also pose multiple therapeutic effects. When used for disc herniation, SNRBs result in less pain, with a success rate of 75% for more than a year

8. Cell-based Therapies

Also known as stem cell therapies, these methods utilize regenerative medicine to offer a non-invasive and less painful alternative treatment for herniated discs. Cell-based therapies extract healthy cells from different parts of your body, process them, and reinject them into the injury site. This promotes healing in damaged herniated discs.

At CELLAXYS, we perform two types of cell-based therapies. Your doctor will opt for any of the methods based on the condition of your herniated discs.

  • Minimally Manipulated Adipose Tissue Transplant (MMAT). This process harvests healthy cells from your adipose (fat) tissue and reinjects them into your affected discs. MMAT can be performed in multiple locations in the same procedure. 
  • Bone Marrow Concentrate (BMAC). This process extracts highly-concentrated cells from your bone marrow and reinjects them into the injury site.

Both MMAT and BMAC are performed within 1.5 to 2 hours. They are outpatient procedures, meaning you can go home right after the process. The doctor uses live X-rays and ultrasounds to identify the exact location of the injury.

9. Platelet-Rich Plasma Therapy (PRP)

PRP is a common alternative treatment for herniated discs among athletes. At CELLAXYS, we perform PRP under extreme care. The process involves taking the patient’s blood sample, isolating the platelets, and reinjecting them into the injury site. Platelets serve as the body’s first line of defense, performing three major functions. 

Platelets release 10 Growth Factors to support the development of new tissues and cells. Second, they attract healing cells from the blood, and third, they produce a web-like scaffolding called fibrin to promote healthy tissues in the injury site. 

PRP takes about 45 minutes to complete. It is also an outpatient procedure and is a widely-accepted treatment for herniated discs.

Dr. Pouya Mohajer

Director of Regenerative Interventional Spine Medicine
Board certification in Anesthesiology and Interventional Pain Medicine
Fellowship-trained from Harvard University
UCLA Alumni


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